Published on October 2nd, 2013 | by Dave Scaddan1
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan – Uzu
O, for a band that gives us hope that we haven’t heard it all before, one that blends the styles of the familiar into something totally new and unfamiliar, catching our ears with a vibe that bursts from pure innovation. Why hasn’t anyone set the elements of traditional oriental opera and theatre into the framework of a freak-rock ensemble before?
The answer is that before a few years ago, there never was a Yamantaka // Sonic Titan [YT//ST]. First of all, forget this band’s new album (and its pounding predecessor) and watch them do their thing. Find whatever live, visual footage of them you are able to and revel in the guts it takes to paint these ancient modes of performance onto the collective face of an electric guitar and keyboard-driven rock group. What balls. The very notion of YT//ST is a conceit that should, by all sensible judgment, fall flat on its face in a tepid pool of rank mockery. The shocking beauty of their construct lies in the fact that it should drown in ridiculousness, while instead it rides wave after swelling wave of intense austerity. Much like the Ramones shaded over their own gumball-goofy insides with the blunt force of rapid robo-riffing, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan cast a shade of intensely serious composition and performance over their seemingly inane blending of styles. This is music that must be taken seriously, but never sits comfortably in any well-worn canal of the inner ear.
The band’s new record, ‘Uzu’ is an album that needs to be heard to be believed. The vocals of Ruby Kato Attwood have been brought right to the front of every mix, where, it is now clear, they have always belonged. Once just one of several signals flashing out of YT//ST’s thickly layered sound, this voice is now the homing beacon, so warm, so cold, so lovely. Whether merely repeating the haunted refrain, “where do I go when I sleep?” (as she does in part one of ‘Seasickness’, the album’s centrepiece) or taking the listener though a half-frozen nautical narrative, (as she does in part two) Ruby Kato Attwood has a fantastically bright and moving voice. Nothing on this band’s debut album two years ago suggested such talent, even though it made for great atmospheric listening.
Suddenly, this band is not only a truly unique concoction of styles that shouldn’t work, but do; they’re also carrying one of the most powerful vocalists any band of their stature can claim. When this group wants to drone hard like Boris or The Melvins, she is there to carry the chant with an intensely sweet juxtaposition. When the Titan seek to sound more like something Donna and James might catch on the stage at the Roadhouse, Kato Attwood can be the flame in the torch song too. So ‘Uzu’ won’t just be more of the same satisfying pounding we heard on this band’s self-titled debut. ‘Uzu’ takes several evolutionary leaps across multiple stylistic seas, all with the grace of a heron landing on a river that’s still as glass on top, but with a basin full of skulls.
Ah, yes, the imagery. This is another new wrinkle that’s developed since the debut release in 2011. This group has always paired visual art, whether in their cover work, their videos or their stage presentation, with what they’re reaching for musically. As it is with artists like David Bowie, Kiss, or Wu Tang Clan, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan forge what we take in with our eyes to what we take in with our ears so cleanly that expressing any separation between the two seems pointless, perhaps impossible. With ‘Uzu’, the imagery in the lyrical content serves to enhance this effect (particularly for Anglophones) in ways it didn’t on earlier tracks. Vast journeys swimming with colour unfold in the words of several of these new songs, perhaps most memorably on ‘Saturn’s Return’ where the lyrics shape our reactions as much as the sounds, as we hear phrasing like, “memories made long ago / remind me of their undertow / a sea of trees is ablaze / white horses racing to carry me home / where nothing is tender / the sour surrender / the ice — too thin for us to walk.” How often do we get to hear poetry this brilliant, let alone from the breath of a modern rock outfit? Read that quoted passage again if you don’t already know the answer.
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan can do anything they want now. Their music could continue to progress in any number of ways and still seem like a logical extension of their work of the last three years. They could continue to sound like the Lips after dumping Wayne and bringing on a Kabuki front-woman and it would make sense. They could go back to sounding like an amplifier-worshipping tribe of noble savages and it would make sense. They could take Kato Attwood to Vegas and make her the new Celine Dion and it would make sense. They could abandon their instruments completely and use chu-nori techniques and poetry to meet minds with their audiences and it would make sense. O, for the band that gives us so much and still leaves us longing with wonder. O, for Yamantaka // Sonic Titan.