Portland's Danava takes the "hip" out of hipster metal on its decidedly unfashionable debut.
Because Portland, Oregon foursome Danava is part of the Kemado records roster, and one of its songs was prominently placed on the indie crowd-targeted Invaders compilation, they'll likely be tagged with the "hipster metal" label, if it hasn't happened already. If the indie rock elite does indeed glom onto this band (it would be a great thing if they do), they're going to have to be prepared for some of the most shamelessly retro, defiantly unironic progressive hard rock to come around in ages. Sounding as punishing as Comets on Fire, but pulling it off in far more flamboyant fashion, Danava is the type of band that can clear a room instantly, with its 13 minute songs, endless synth-twiddling, extremely dense mix, guitar noodling, and horribly recorded lead vocals, but for every ten people who will think this music is pointless art rock wankery, a handful of others will find the band's self-titled debut CD to be one of the more refreshing debuts of the year. It just depends how open you are to bands that are willing to display their affection for Klaatu and Hawkwind.
Featuring some decidedly oddball production courtesy fellow Portland musician Johnny Jewel, for all its prog/space/art rock leanings, the sound of Danava is decidedly glammy, accentuating the high-end sounds, making for dominant cymbal crashes, thin-sounding riffs, and tinny lead vocals. An interesting tactic, one that boldly avoids the trend of ultra-heavy doom influences that dominate most of the trendy metal these days, and one that works well.
Opening with a lugubrious overture of twin guitar harmonies, "By the Mark" hints at doom, with its Sabbatherian triplets that follow, but with a synthesizer skittering across the mix and lead singer Dusty Sparkles singing his incomprehensible psychedelic lyrics (presented on the bright yellow digipak in a nearly-as-unrecognizable font), and that bizarre mix, it all smacks of Technical Ecstasy, not Master of Reality. By the time the song bursts into its boogie woogie coda five minutes in, the pure groove transcends the production limitations, and we're enjoying the ride. At nearly 13 minutes, "Eyes in Disguise" is a sneaky little song, one containing a borderline ridiculous six-minute intro obviously inspired by krautrock by way of '70s prog, as keyboardist Rockwell (you've got to love the names of these guys) goes all Rick Wakeman on our asses, delivering repetitive synth arpeggios and bleeps. Guitars and drums mercifully enter the fray with a tantalizing flourish, launching the song (finally!) into a series of swirling space rock riffs, the heavily reverb-ed Sparkles slurring his mantra-like lines, adding to the trance-like feel. The song then concludes with an inexplicable piece of Zeppelinesque jamming, but at this point, why the hell not?
The atrociously titled "Quiet Babies Astray in a Manger" is far more concise, not to mention rewarding, centered around a propulsive guitar/bass riff (you could just picture a young Lemmy Kilmister hammering away on his bass) and the beefed-up sound of drummer Buck Rothy, Del Blackwood's mellifluous upper register basslines serving as the song's refrain. It's clear Danava loves to pull out the surprises, and the fact that the song concludes with an eye-popping coda that blatantly rips off Iron Maiden circa 1980 makes it all the more winning. The Maiden influence carries over into the furious gallop of the opening bars of "Longdance" before abruptly shifting into a loosey-goosey tangent and quickly righting itself with another effective Sabbath riff. The concluding track "Maudie Shook" has an unmistakable Thin Lizzy feel to it, exuding a creepy, sinister vibe, the song dissolving in a haze of noise, feedback, and whooshing effects, concluding with a tidy bit of piano tinkling.
This album is far from perfect, as the bass is woefully under recorded, and Sparkles hardly has the kind of commanding voice you think would be necessary for such a band, but like any band clever enough to know exactly how much it can get away with, Danava finds a way to exploit its strengths (jamming and effects) and downplay its weaknesses well enough to make it all a highly enjoyable 45 minutes. Whether they can take this hybrid of sounds from 35 years ago further next time around remains to be seen (remember how cool the Apes sounded in 2003, and how bland they sounded a year later?), but for now, with a cool label behind them, and heavy music enjoying an above-ground resurgence, there's no reason why Danava can't strike while the iron's hot.