by Elena Gritzan
Most thunderstorms start with a slow rumble before erupting into something monumental and memorable. This describes the start of Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s debut, YT//ST, (sampled thunder, slow-moving chords and harmonies growing into a fierce, fast-paced metal-infused explosion) as much as their quickly rising profile. They are decidedly the underdog of the list: more of an art collective than a band, relatively unknown before their short list nomination and the makers of music with a decidedly outsider’s perspective. This is exactly how the Polaris should work, though. An album picked up solely for its merit with no preconceptions about the artist, shared among jurors and music fans. Not many may have known about this enigmatic band going into the process, but many emerged from the record’s whirlwind 30 minutes completely sold.
A personal aside: I can remember the first time that I heard parts of YT//ST. It made enough of an impression that I immediately scrawled down the strange-sounding name of this band I had no concept of, posting it on my desktop as a reminder to look out for more. I had an immediate recognition that this was a band doing something interesting, and I am clearly not alone in that assessment. Incidentally, they were also the first band I ever covered here at Grayowl. The huge audience growth they experienced between that show and their return to the Garrison months later for NXNE is striking. Yamantaka have built up a dedicated and diverse audience based entirely on their highly creative and iconoclastic music.
The dark, evocative and nuanced twists of the music are of course the reason they deserve this prize. Extremely hard to categorize, they throw together Eastern cultural influences, opera, noise, and fast-paced metal to create a self-christened beast: “noh-wave”. Sweet harmonies blend over scuzzy synthesizers and operatic choruses layer over heavy-hitting guitar. The short album feels like its own world, creating an atmosphere that tells a story.
There is no definitive “single” on the record (although the faded-in, propulsive “Hoshi Neko” might come close), instead blending through into one massive experience. The climax is probably “A Star Over Pureland”. Slightly off-sounding bells, military percussion and the hugest riff combine in layers; voices are used as instruments, sounding out notes in the off-beats and wailing to add atmosphere. The song is seven minutes of over-the-top expression, and utterly gratifying.
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan have gained a following for being 100% interesting and completely committed to their vision and art. If they walk away from the gala Monday night with the Polaris Prize, the prize will have completely lived up to its mandate. Artistic integrity, with no regards to sales or any external influences. They may not have displays in HMV like some of the other nominees, but if there is one thing that they represent, it is definitely art.