By Steve Jones.
YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN is the project of Canadian performance artists alaska B and Ruby Kato Attwood. YT//ST is their first collection of music, released in October of 2011. It holds 7 songs and lasts 31 minutes.
One real strength of YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN is that I can say with relative confidence that no other music groups are doing the same thing right now. YT//ST is a strange and wonderful amalgam of classic prog rock, noise, psychedelia, and Japanese popular music new and old. It's a short, half-hour long story, but it is packed with ideas and adventures, and it continues to sound fresh even after you've played it on repeat a dozen times in a row.
I don't have too many head-banging records, but this is definitely one of them. It is satisfyingly heavy throughout, with the drumming deserving of particular attention, but it keeps finding new ways to be heavy so as not to be overbearing and boring. I also want to stress just how good this album is at adhering to the spirit of classic prog, because not many new records do. "Queens" most fits this bill, with a snaking melody driven by an electric organ before the rock instrumentation takes over. There's even Baroque keyboard noodling in "Reverse Crystal // Murder of a Spider" that would sound right at home in a Renaissance or King Crimson or Gentle Giant song. But what really excites me about YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN's sound is this sense that it finds itself where prog and theatre meet. The band is influenced by noh theatre (calling themselves "noh wave" [he he]), and this fusion most brings to my mind the works that J.A. Seazer composed for Shuji Terayama's underground experimental Tenjo Sajiki theatre from 1970s Japan. In case I need to remind you, I love J.A. Seazer, and creating a modern band with similar operatic prog vibes is one of the best things you can do to guarantee my attention.
What is a little disappointing about the album, and which naturally follows, is the sense that I am only getting a small fragment of the whole story and whole experience. There's only so much information that can be held by a single LP, and YT//ST amounts to just a snapshot of alaska and Attwood's larger operatic ambitions. No doubt this is music ultimately meant to be heard in a live setting, but it still congeals together into an exciting half hour on plastic.
If I had to choose a favorite song, it would be "Hoshi Neko." I do enjoy me some J-pop, and "Hoshi Neko" is enjoyable in the way that it plays up a lot of J-pop elements to such a degree that they become affectionately satirical. Similar to the way much of J-pop takes western pop elements and amps them up to 11, this song goes in the reverse direction. The result is a narrative about a "star cat" that has a choral hook consisting of the phrase "watashi wa!", which is one of the first things you learn in elementary Japanese (it just about translates to "I am"). These cutesy, simplistic elements are still supported by a very strong pop song with an excellent chord progression and heavy arrangement. Whatever its intention, the song communicates a sense of fun which is found throughout the album.
What makes it all even better is the fact that the album's most pop-soaked song is followed by 7 minutes of pure noise rock. "A Star Over Pureland" contains shredding guitars, crashing drums, wailing voices, and a relentless assault of sound that at one point brings in a descending bell line which totally ties the song together. Honestly, the first time I saw their band name I thought the "Yamantaka" was a reference to eYe of Boredoms fame, and this track is representative of the kind of sound I expected from the album. I am glad that YT//ST is a much more ambitious and more satisfying work than a bit of Boredoms worship, but I am also glad that it has enough variety and competence to explore this sound. It's the longest track, but it feels like the shortest.
This is a hard review to write. In some part, I want to atone for not hearing this album when it was released ten months ago. I thank Mark for choosing it as a recent Album of the Week on our forums, because it is, in so many ways, music that seems specifically tailored towards appealing to me. And I guess I find it difficult to communicate why other people might like it due to the fact that I love it so viscerally. YT//ST is a magical experience for me, and there's only so much I can dissect about it. It's one of the best things I've heard from 2011, and I cannot tell you how pleased I am to see it on the Polaris Prize short list. YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN are the dark horse I'm rooting for.
YT//ST is a brilliant, unique, artful statement of appealing weirdness and accessible inventiveness. I can only hope it is a herald of many more things to come.
Score: Decent 9
Bandcamp it up, for my sake:
(Steve Jones wants to participate in any kind of theatrical venture involving star kittens. If you have any leads, hit him up at his Twitter @vestenet.)