It’s a bleak time for rock and roll. It always ebbs and flows, this guitar music of the soul, between the charts and the trash can; right now, there are guiding lights, but the air feels stale, like we’ve heard it all before. Nestled in the bunker of the underground, listening to the air raid sirens of Lorde and Nicki Minaj signalling with screeching abandon above, it’s hard to think we denim-clad, button-bedecked, Weezer Blue Album junkies will ever sniff the fresh scent of platinum approval again. Get over yourself with that last part. If popular acclaim carries cultural capital in hip hop, then the least some folks with guitars can hope for is a stake in the game.
But, if such ambition lies outside the scope of reality, at least for now, and we Northern Children need a sedative to get us through the blank, grey world of Harper’s Canadian Wonderland, I can offer you a vibrant one: YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN and their Polaris nominated album UZU. The Paper Bag Records stalwarts caused quite a stir when they beat back the brains of all listeners with their previous, self-titled (if abbreviated) full-length YT//ST. The group favour maximalist arrangements, sweeping sounds, and aim to infuse the dramatic into their work at every turn. Metal, prog, psych, Noh singing, it’s all there. And the new record seeks to push those elements even further.
There is a rhythm that betrays experimentation perceivable on UZU. Yes, they’ve pulled a Sgt. Pepper blending, to keep one long track going the whole way through the record. And the sounds are familiar, not something out of Bjork’s secret nightmares. But the combination of warbling vocals from lead singer Ruby Kato Attwood are freshly pressed into the art of fellow performance artist Alaska B and the remainder of the TITAN. The keys are superior throughout the record, and are shoved to the front of most tracks they appear on, providing an approachable, familiar texture to latch onto amidst swirling synths and grinding guitar parts. So this is the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road of YT//ST’s career so far? Yep. You could definitely speak that truth into your beer glass.
The record plays out like a journey — or an epic manga adventure, if you follow the band’s enthusiastic imagery to its logical conclusion — and the destinations along the way are thrilling to the ears. The heaviest track to be offered up, “Hall of Mirrors,” shows how mythology should be done: chaotic images of corpses and bloody moons go so well with minor chord organ work and a machine gun kick drum. “Seasickness” parts one and two feel like a computer’s road trip algorithm. There is so much jam coursing through these two songs, that I wish there were parts three and four as well. And the finale, “Saturn’s Return,” begins with the tautness of a ballad before devolving into scrubby white noise. The sonic trek of UZU is involved with universal demons and lit by eery phosphorescence. Wouldn’t it be nice for something this weird to be honoured with Canada’s musical award mainstay?
This is the second time YT//ST have made it to the Polaris, and the first time they happen to be on the short list. If they don’t win this year, they’ll be back. The level of artistry present in their work is undeniable. And the music keeps getting more complicated, more interesting. This is an exciting, black and white, rock and roll band — even if they are living in a grey era.