Photo: Joey Binhammer / Courtesy of Abronia

Our Unknown Topography: Psych Rockers Abronia on ‘Map of Dawn’

Lyrically and sonically, psych-rock band Abronia’s Map of Dawn explores an ever-shifting landscape of creases, caves, and unreliable ground.

Map of Dawn
Feeding Tube / Cardinal Fuzz
20 May 2022

Abronia is a six-piece band with a female vocalist on tenor sax, pedal steel, bass, and two guitars centered around an oversized marching bass drum. Hailing from Portland’s underground and conceived in the expanse of a Utah desert, Abronia’s third release, Map of Dawn, supersedes its originating vision – only the lands evoked by sound might be a desertified lakebed, Portland in disarray, or an ancient Celtic battlefield. Deeply moving, genre-resistant, inner-canyon-carving Americana, Abronia burns with dusted sunsets and soothes with heavy, haunted nights via psych-rock, krautrock, Tuareg, and UK folk.

Indeed, Abronia’s music is a modern Dionysian din, full in its regalia of a traveling commune of sound histories, complete with bloody dissonance and swagger – and just enough tenderness to keep us safe. Thriving in liminal spaces, Abronia exemplifies radical collaboration as an intentional band, overcoming pandemic constraints like distanced outdoor rehearsals. And when the wildfires drove Oregonians back into isolation, it only added to the creativity of Map of Dawn. Abronia knows how to navigate the pain we are in. And we are better off for it. 

The Pandemic in Portland

When the Covid pandemic began to irrevocably alter the world, Portland squeezed out its last gasses: bars were reduced to being open only for a few hours to care for the brave and lonely, the consignment stores sold the last wares of a better past, venues hosted swan songs while the sweat and awe inside dissipated. No fun, Portland’s underground joint, became, well, no fun. We lugged our careless bodies home. The birds became resplendent with us gone, erased from the streets. Like them, some of us turned to the aural for solace. Notes became medicine for the unknown.

My lockdown boyfriend came over with a backpack of vinyl: George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (1970) Chris SquiresFish out of Water with the London Symphony Orchestra (1975), and Obsidian Visions/Shadowed Lands (2017) by a band I had no idea could exist: Abronia

We listened to the records through my tiny Bose speaker, which filled my studio apartment with sound. We drank from obscene-sized liquor bottles I had bought pandemic shopping, clearing the shelves with the rest of the privileged. We made apocalypse jokes and toasts that turned out too prophetic to remain funny. We played more records.

When the needle dropped into Abronia’s opening track, “The Great Divide”, an unwieldy twang followed by controlled chaos unleashed a thunder inside me. Behold, the bass drum helped me to hold on. The remainder was life-changing; If lockdown meant I could live near this realm – I figured I’d be fine.

Abronia’s second album, 2019’s The Whole of Each Eye, followed suit. Their sound and force grew with a shift in players, and tenor saxophonist Keelin Mayer contributed more vocals. Listening quickened my inner nature. I’d return to the music when I wanted to scream, when death tolls and riots and the slog of quarantine chunked out mental health. With lyrics that refuse to handhold, I could insert myself into the song, into the dirges as the world crumbled around me.

Keelin Mayer affirms this: “The lyrics on all three albums are intensely personal. They aren’t explicit intentionally for I love the cryptic element. I want the lyrics to allow for an air of mystery or for the listener to find the lyrics personally meaningful and perhaps come up with their own story or meaning.” 

The Rising of Map of Dawn

Abronia’s new release from the UK’s Feeding Tube/ Cardinal Fuzz, Map of Dawn, sifts psychedelic landscapes. Within that, the array of influences from Morriconesque Spaghetti westerns to prog anthems accumulate. Listening layers track upon track until maybe, just maybe, such sound offers a compass.

Tracks like “Night Hoarders” and “Games” are transcendent in documenting our demise; “Invite Jeffrey Over” and “Caught Between Hives” are molasses in their build. “Plant That Flag” is unapologetic. “Wave of the Hand” and “What We Can See” indite us. Yet there is always a grounding force to brace against like syllabic drawl, drone, or chordal incantation. Abronia knows when to pull us back to beauty. 

Just like the sand verbena plant Abronia is named after, the band stabilizes listeners in threatened soil. The music mitigates questionable conditions like the demise of capitalism. Has Abronia achieved the impetus of their originating vision and moniker? Founder and guitarist Eric Crespo laughs and confirms a type of “musical erosion control”. Indeed, lyrically and sonically, Map of Dawn explores an ever-shifting landscape of creases, caves, and unreliable ground.   

Certainly, the push and pull of the endless pandemic play into the rhythms of the album. The band pivoted in order to rehearse, first sharing feedback on zoom, then distanced outside with adjusted instrumentation. Crespo says, “When we were practicing outdoors we were playing at a pretty low volume where effects and drones weren’t really part of the equation – we weren’t really getting the usual sustain we would normally get playing at regular practice volume. So there was probably an impetus to make songs a little more defined and maybe more succinct than they would have been otherwise.” 

Mayer adds that the nature of altered rehearsals pushed her as a vocalist, “When the pandemic hit and we had to play in the yard acoustically I didn’t have my pedals to obscure my voice. I was now confronted with my own raw voice. It was a struggle at first. This then pushed my lyrical content and my singing skills.”

Abronia Reaches Beyond Genre Boundaries

Abronia has a healthy resistance to the labels, often skirting genre definition. When pushed to discuss musical camps, Crespo says he is reminded of a line from Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: “‘If you label it this then it can’t be that.’ That one always struck a chord with me. I want to be free to be this and that.” Citing artists as disparate as Lee Hazlewood, Lydia Lunch, and Fela Kuti as inspiring, he adds that he hopes Abronia is tapping into a type of creative purity. “There’s another way people approach making music – it’s about working off of your own script. It’s about finding the courage to present your own vision and then be willing to put in the work to refine that personal vision into something that is worthy of presentation. It transcends genres and international borders.”  

Each member of Abronia comes from various parts of America: James Shaver (bass drum) is from the DC suburbs, Paul Michael Schaefer (guitar) from rural Minnesota, Shaun Lyvers (bass guitar) hails from Florida, and Rick Pedrosa (pedal steel) is from Maryland. Do their diverse perspectives provide a fullness of contribution or sonic impulse? Mayer confirms that being rooted in Chicago is influential: “I was able to go to punk shows or catch a blues band playing on a street corner on Maxwell and Halsted,” but migration also impacts her: “Moving from a post-industrial rust belt city to the great expanse of the West I traded the decaying factories for the decaying forest floor frequencies and the eastern Oregon high desert. I appreciate death, decay, and regeneration.” 

Crespo, born in Los Angeles but raised in North Carolina, says that “Having any six people in a band will give you unique perspectives, especially if they grew up in different scenes. I do think that the affiliations and connections you make in your earliest days of playing music will continue to inform what you do for your entire music-playing life. Those imprints on the teenage brain seem inescapable.”

Map of Dawn’s Origin and Meaning

As a band bent on collaboration and a democratic approach, Abronia was stoked when they struck upon the title, Map of Dawn. Shaver was interested in the experimental work of artists and musicians Hetty and Angus Maclise, specifically their poem, “Map of Dusk”. Shaver says the album’s name was “sparked through their idea that the artist themself was the ‘map’ throughout time. The last two years have been dealing out whole lotta dusks, be it through the pandemic, climate doomsday scenarios, unchecked capitalism, or Portland-in-decline. So I think the idea behind the flip-flopped name was to rehash the idea that the artist could be a map to potential new dawns, whatever that may be. That idea seemed relevant considering that we as a band had practiced through the whole pandemic. Like we were still charting our own vision despite the bleakness.”  

Crespo adds that, metaphorically, Map of Dawn reminds him of a “Terence McKenna lecture where he is talking about the idea of witnessing a birth and how when you see it, there’s blood and the mother is screaming – it looks like death, but it’s actually the beginning of something new. It’s sometimes easy to forget that in order to move into a radically new reality that there will probably be a window of time that is quite messy and painful.”

Map of Dawn tracks that transition – Crespo and Mayer’s lyrics deftly communicate a universality of duress under late capitalism, while also capturing specific pains Portlanders recently endured: the racial justice protests, the unabashed use of tear gas, the descent of federal agents, an overdue examination of white privilege, the houseless crisis, and the 2020 wildfires. In their delivery there is a lack of insistence on meaning; there’s more emphasis on their sound.

When collaborating, Mayer says, improvisation is important. “Much of my process of creating songs has been through improvisation. My subconscious is activated through improvisation and allows deep-seated imagery to unfurl through the music.” Crespo recounts co-writing with Mayer via a loose, surrealist method with emphasis on working with the inchoate: “I’m the midwife for these words that want to get born – trying to coax them out of their fetal state and then Keelin brings those words into maturity.” 

Map of Dawn not only promises a sound experience one won’t forget, but it helps us become hearty cartographers capable of navigating unknowns. “What is the map of dawn?” I ask. Crespo muses, “The map exists just beyond the veil. It’s always there and some might see it from time to time, but it can never be printed because it is constantly changing. Every thought, every action, and even the slightest breeze changes the map in significant and lasting ways. There’s no telling where the map might lead you. The map of dawn has always existed, and it always will.”

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