I remember the spring I turned 18, when the universe seemed to be opening up to let me in, and, at the same time, making sure I knew I couldn’t go back. That April, the lawns were always wet and mist rose off of them, making my small town blurry, almost unreal. I would drive my parents’ green station wagon in circles, without anywhere to go, but still imagining I could make it somewhere I hadn’t been before if I kept on driving long enough. One night, close to midnight, as I was driving through an empty intersection, the song “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac came on the radio, and I started thinking about finally letting go of a certain high school sweetheart and moving on. As Stevie sang the part about being “afraid of changing” and “getting older,” I found myself crying. The air felt too heavy, too thick with possibility. The knowledge that I would leave my small town for something I didn’t and couldn’t know hovered there, in the song. It was as if the universe was bestowing upon me the knowledge of a certain kind of fatality, a knowledge that my childhood was slipping away. Yet, something in the song said, at the same time, that it was actually going to be OK, because change is the way of everything — past, present, and future. I ended up blasting “Landslide” with all the windows rolled down, and singing along with Stevie in utter euphoria, not caring if I woke up the whole goddamn town.
There are certain past events that we will forever associate with the songs that played along with them. And now, whenever I think about what it felt like to be 18, I hear “Landslide” playing in my mind. I can still remember the exact intersection where I heard the song and turned the car towards the highway.
I associate Kylesa’s music with my first year of college, when I joined the student radio station and received something of an education in what was then (in pre-Google days) underground rock music. I was an indie-pop fan who thought that aggressive music meant when Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead played a particularly emotional solo. The first time I heard the word “noise” as a genre was at a radio station lecture for freshmen. I experienced a spine-tingling epiphany as a senior put on a record by Hanatarash. Amid the sounds of power tools and heavy machinery, I furiously scribbled in my journal, “I’ve found it! I’ve found the answer!” Thereafter, you could find me patronizing dingy basements and loft spaces, searching out any band that made me feel like I was being split apart by a machete. The sound of heavy music was the only thing that could shut my mind down, encompass me, sound out my darkest depths. I loved the feeling of losing touch with myself, my mind going silent, completely overwhelmed by the weight of something outside me, a darkness the size of the universe.
A few weeks after this epiphany, I discovered Kylesa’s 2002 self-titled debut album. It had a gory skeleton on the cover that threatened to drip its blood and yellow mucus onto the radio station couch. Tentatively, I picked up the CD, pinching it delicately between my thumb and forefinger like a dirty tissue. I stuffed it into the CD tray, pressed play, and then, quickly, wiped my hands on my jeans, closed my eyes and hoped for the best. Sure enough, my prayers were answered as the opening riff of “No Remorse” boomed out of the stereo. By 30 seconds in, I was headbanging. It was impossible not to. The vocals were the good kind of hardcore, the kind that seems vulnerable even its anger. There were echoes of both Fugazi and Sabbath. There were all kinds of interesting polyrhythms and melodies that pulled your mind in different directions at once. It was music you could think about, as well as headbang to.
Marveling at how downright interesting this music was, I began to consider that liking this music might make me a more interesting person. “I like metal!” I told myself proudly. “I like metal!” It became exciting, suddenly, to make my musical taste into something expansive, because then my own identity expanded along with it. I felt like Walt Whitman — “I am large. I contain multitudes!” Heavy music became the secret part of me, the sensual, responsive part, the part that no one could ever guess I possessed. Why wouldn’t they guess I liked metal? Well, maybe because I was a teenage girl. Probably also because I was a shy Harvard student who spent weekends in the 24-hour library and carried around a violin. Then, like most teenagers, I prided myself on my ability to be different. My affinity for screamo bands like the Rites of Spring and Circle Takes the Square was directly proportional to my desire to prove to the world that I was an individual. I wanted to take on some kind of power by choosing difference.
I think that my interest in heavy music was also related to my desire not to be “a typical girl,” whatever that even means. I sensed, somehow, the power that was in those rooms where men got together and talked about music in awed voices — and I wanted in. But even setting side the question of power for a moment, listening to heavy music was one way in which I wanted to complicate my own relationship to gender. On the inside, I didn’t feel like whatever a teenage girl was supposed to be, and there were things about masculinity that seemed very attractive. There was something about blending in with the guys at hardcore shows and flailing around with them in the pit that helped me step outside certain limits I’d assumed went along with being a female person in the world.
But, to tell the truth, my affinity for the bands like Circle Takes the Square and Kylesa had a lot to do with the fact that these bands had talented women screaming, singing, and playing instruments — in other words, behaving in a way that suggested the idea of a woman with complete freedom. As Mish Way argued so eloquently in a Talkhouse piece, screaming is unique when it comes from a woman — more dangerous, transcending limits. It provokes an immediate response from its audience — be it love, or hate, or a mixture of both.
I’ll never forget the mixture of jealousy, awe, and panic that struck me when I discovered an earlyYouTube video of Kylesa playing in a crowded basement and realized — no, it couldn’t be, but yes! — it was a girl shredding like that. Watching the video, I was instantly stricken by self-reproach — “No matter how much I practice guitar, I will never be that good!” I told myself. “I should just give up now.” Although I didn’t realize it then, those feelings of jealousy and self-loathing are actually a defense mechanism for a young woman who suddenly sees herself face-to-face with the kind of young woman she desires to emulate or become. But, setting aside the question of gender for the moment, my affinity for bands like Circle Takes the Square, bands that flirted with genres like post-hardcore and metal while melding them into something else entirely different, also had a lot to do with the fact that the music was just really amazing. Although they didn’t become popular until a few years ago, Kylesa made some of the best guitar rock of the early ’00s.
Ultraviolet sounds mature in a way that I’m not sure I’ve ever associated with their early material. Now, when Laura Pleasants sings, her thoughts are existential but muted, associated with a kind of self-awareness, an acceptance of limits that makes her feelings sound more resonant and truer. “My old heart was pounding,” she sings, “You looked the other way. I needed a reaction with thoughts of yesterday.” There’s something in that knowledge that you don’t need a reaction anymore. You needed a reaction; youused to need one. There is a strong awareness in these lyrics of what gets lost to time as you move through it, of the difference between yesterday and today, and of the reaction that occurs between them. Pleasants’ anger remains, but its energy is filtered through her many layers of awareness. “I have some reservations,” she sings, in a still powerful voice. When was the last time you heard a metal band emote about having a few doubts?
Is it weird to say that this is a metal band writing a contemplative album? Because I think that’s whatUltraviolet is. There’s a profound melancholy that permeates even the most aggressive of the songs. In “Grounded,” Pleasants drags her words out over entire guitar lines. The instruments drive the song forward, but Pleasants sounds like she’s doing some serious thinking. Her abstracted sighs are pretty, and when co-vocalist Philip Cope chimes in with a few choice screams, the contrast serves the song’s sophistication. This is more than a typical heavy rock number because Pleasants and Cope won’t seem to let it be only that. Ultimately, Ultraviolet is like a meticulously woven fabric in which different threads occasionally cross, with surprising and striking results. Everything is unpredictable — in part because the album is so full of different kinds of feelings. “Half of me is empty,” sings Pleasants — and it’s important here that it’s just half. The other half is equally significant, and what it carries remains a mystery.
Somehow, all the contrasting elements of Ultraviolet don’t feel disjointed — perhaps because Cope, its producer, is completely in command, making sure that every piece of the puzzle fuses perfectly with the next. In “We’re Taking This,” layers of heavy guitar peel back to reveal a few gentle verses about “trepidation” sung in such a detached and yet commanding tone that they both suggest and cause trepidation at the same time. The guitar sounds muted and meandering, so that when the distorted riff enters again, at the end of the song, it sounds new — and even more brutal. “You’ve lost yourself!” sings Pleasants, almost sweetly. It’s not an accusation. It’s a realization, fueled by the song itself, which seems to want to delve into not just the idea of loss, but how the process of loss works, in all its complexity. There’s something about this record that is not just ready to talk about feelings, but eager to portray them, to explore them through sound. That’s why the lyrics and the music feel seamless — because they’re two sides of the same idea.
Ultraviolet contains some truly excellent guitar work, long, intricate melodic lines that make you believe that this old instrument is still capable of great innovation. And while it might seem weird to say that a metal band is pretty, I am saying it about Ultraviolet. This is very, very beautiful music with a clear investment in beauty’s softer aspects as well as its more sublime ones.
Listeners will find all sorts of points of comparison in Ultraviolet. “Grounded,” with its meaty riff and slow breakdown, comes close to the work of Screaming Females. “Steady Breakdown” actually recalls Pink Floyd, complete with a winding guitar line, moody vocals, and a solo straight out of “Comfortably Numb.” “Low Tide” sounds like Modest Mouse or Built to Spill, but there’s a melancholy, introspective quality to that song that just barely escapes being indie-rock because the guitar is so high in the mix, the vocals sound more like accompaniment than the focal point of the song. Other songs recall anything from Fucked Up (“What Does It Take”) to Garbage (the relatively poppy “Quick Sound”).
And yet, despite the many comparisons you could make, the most striking aspect of Ultraviolet is its refusal to accept categorization or classification. Just when you think things are black-and-white, the album makes a leap into Technicolor. And each track is filled with so many changes, it’s almost exhausting, like listening to a whole decade’s worth of musical invention all at once.
If you want to get older without getting stuck, you have to keep asking questions, and asking questions can maybe be the point of growing up and becoming the person you want to be, and not the person you feel you have to be. “Can you hear?” asks Pleasants, almost plaintively. “Can you feel? Can you sense that I am here?” This is a band with relentless dedication to its own individuality and to the evolution of its own ideas over time. To me, Ultraviolet sounds like what it means never to be satisfied, to accept desire as limitless, and to always want to change. In a way, it’s about what it means to be OK with taking the highway, even not knowing where it leads. Maybe it’s really just like Stevie says, that you can only go forward when you’re not afraid of changing. I hope that in ten years, I will be equally dedicated to taking that highway out of town, wherever it may lead. What’s certain, for me, at least, is that the road is paved with songs.
hi amy. laura here. i really enjoyed reading your review and it certainly is interesting getting a perspective from another female musician who knows our history. thanks!
on 31-05-2013 11:32
Thank YOU, Laura! I am such a fan of yours, and am looking forward to seeing your next NYC show. Thank you for inspiring me to play the guitar!