SHADOWPLAY – A Post-Punk, Darkwave Overview – ESSES “No Light In This Fire,” L I T H I C S “Borrowed Floors,” SYNDICATE “Vol. 1”

ESSES / L I T H I C S / Syndicate
No Light In This Fire / Borrowed Floors / Vol. 1
Atakra Records / Bandcamp /Commodity Tapes - Sabotage

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ESSES begin epic and why not. It’s clear within the first eight seconds of the recently released (Aug.1st) No Light In This Fire, when the twinkling creep of a piano synth gives way to a thunderous crash of the band entire minus vox (Kevin Brown drums, Schon Clem bass, Michael Mersereau and Dawn Hillis on a paired-up storm of guitar) arriving with a precise downbeat assault, that the group possesses sufficient fire in their collective ranks to blast at will. It is of course a dark compelling sound – why else would they be appearing in a Shadowplay column – with lashing shoegaze dynamics getting rather blown apart from the inside out, an impression only magnified once Miss Kel steps to the mic and, well, ‘belts’ we suppose is one word for it – her voice has that force, that command – but its bellow, dressed up in its reverb finery, also knows the value found in prowling the lower reaches, crossing the bridge in this initial track (“Echoes”) with the compressed intensity of a certain Ms Hersh in her most bruising prime, not a comparison I necessarily thought I’d ever make on these pages but nonetheless that same incendiary intelligence is apparent from the start.

They come from Oakland, do these ESSES, from a scene that has grown from budding to explosive seemingly overnight, the other, slightly-more-affordable City by the Bay joining a thriving West Coast expansion league that flows from Vancouver BC through every major stop-off along the way to LA (we’re waiting for a nascent San Diego scene to kick it into gear; lemme know if there’s already one we don’t know about). By any metric it’s a rich time for those of us out here who, musically at least, prefer a life lived at the darker end of the spectrum. Things are booming in the shadows and ESSES, on the basis of NLITF, are as sharp an addition to this constantly onrushing wave as any we’ve heard.

Witness the driving churn of “Pestilence” – let’s imagine the Banshees pushed along by Theatre of Hate’s innate dramatics – or “Withering Flowers”‘ reaching gothic yearn, theatrical, moving, icy dark all at once, or let yourself get lost in the heavy, moody black horizons of the ironically-named “White Silence,” Miss Kel declaiming over a frostbitten landscape so echoing with the rumbling fall of glaciers that it’s giving Michael Gira nightmares. This is not a band that’s kidding around.

 

“Sea of Red,” concussing first thing around a treated guitar made to resemble a plinking off-key piano persisting inside a desolate war zone, resounds with a thick apocalyptic grace, its sense of utter finality present from the very beginning. Strangely, it might well be the album’s most crushingly beautiful track, though “Green Room,” with its Hooky slide bass, its lingering sheets of distorted guitar static hanging in layers of shimmering fuzz, and a lyric, ghostly vocal, comes along immediately to dispute that claim.

It’s a bracing listen, all told – final track “The Prisoner Within,” at eight and a half minutes, is a crawling monolith of a thing, emotionally desperate to such a sustained pitch that it will test the mettle of the casual devotee. You don’t not lend full attention to a song this massive, this eloquent, whatever the price you have to pay for it – but ESSES aren’t here to smooth your path, but rather to remind you, without flinching, of its inescapably dark nature. No Light In This Fire is that path’s soundtrack, ESSES your guide. [album available on vinyl or as a download here]

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L I T H I C S music is a bit of a slippery devil. In the first few seconds of the Portland band’s full debut proper Borrowed Floors (released last March after a cassette EP in 2015 and yes we know, we know, what took us so long. Shut up), on a track astutely named “Burn on Burn,” it’s a chopped funk bassline that could have been lifted from early Au Pairs. Next comes some groove-punctuating drums from someone probably not named ‘Hugo’ but may as well be, to be soon joined by a couple of guitars that have a Mekons circa “Where Were You” VS. the Fall pretty-much-anytime-feel, both battling it out – as usual – to see who can best nail that Keith Levene-does-Zoot Horn Rollo thing. Then, twisting over and around it all with a straightforward but sinuous detachment, a female vocal is added that might suggest either a calmed-down Kleenex or a more emphatic Alison Stratton, and when it all gets tossed into the mixer – or in this case the soundboard at Evan Merskey’s Red Lantern Studios – what comes out en totale, no surprise I suppose, hints at a deep regard for Pylon while sounding, naturellement, nothing exactly like them. Whatever. I’m in love.

Comprised of nine mostly quick sharp strikes before the final “Seven People” ends things by stretching the ecstatic template just described to four and a half delirious minutes with wild Contortionesque sprays of horn and a touch of the drone hypnotic, Borrowed Floors is an injected jolt of electrified intelligence that far exceeds the limits of what might be reasonably expected from a band only formed in late 2014, though that does help explain, perhaps – and I mean this adjective rather literally – the album’s breathtaking urgency.

 

“Labor” is two minutes of jittery concise that pesters you from the fringes until you agree to shed your skin and dance, herky-jerky though that dance must assuredly be. “Thing in Your Eye” deals with its Minutemen-like impatience by jabbing jagged punk-jazz guitar shapes into your ears, essentially transferring an itchy restlessness from their busy head to yours. You’ll welcome it. On ultimate L I T H I C S prototype “Shees” the band give themselves space to allow some drama to unfold beneath the spindly structures and yet, because the unpacked tension simply reveals even more need-to-be-released tension like nested dolls sculpted out of pure energy, the song as it dissolves into a splintering 2-guitar chaos still seems to stutter past in under a minute even as the timer says “3:28.” “Metal Helmet,” meanwhile, is nothing less that the best of Delta 5 distilled into a compressed shorthand, “Lizard” has them learning the value of a throaty rumble (especially as it contrasts against glass shatter guitar), and “African Mask,” possibly this writer’s favorite track on an album that guarantees such a pick will shift at mischievous will, is wonderfully shameless in its adoption of the Leeds template (with some Verlainey touches for added mystique) and comes as homagistically close to breathing in then breathing out the spirit (though not the slavish letter) of Gang of Four as any we’ve heard and you’ve gotta admit we’ve heard our share.

L I T H I C S, in short, are a wonder. Though media reticent with no Facebook page and a fairly solid ‘no interviews’ stance – the latter out of modesty, not feeling they’ve much to say; the former out of choice not shyness and it’s hard not to see some wisdom in that – the quality of this debut ensures they’ll nevertheless be fielding inquiries and fending off interview requests at an ever-increasing rate as the shredded angular charms of Borrowed Floors spreads beyond the boundaries of Portland’s city limits. Not to be too cute but this is post-punk virus pop for which there is no vaccine. Which is fine, preferred even. You’re going to want to catch this as quickly as possible. [digital and cassette copies available here, and sorry but both vinyl editions are sold out]

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Released over the summer as a cassette on Commodity Tapes and hitting vinyl via European imprint Sabotage Oct. 1st, the sensibly-named debut Vol. 1 from Oakland band Syndicate proves as if further proof were needed that there is indeed an apparently infinite bounty of riches pouring from every corner of that city. No there there? Pfff, there’s nothing but there there these days when it comes to music being made in the shadow of the post-punk/darkwave/peace punk banner.

Syndicate, for the most part, gather down toward the peace punk end of that grouping – it’s no coincidence that Arctic Flowers guitarist Stan Wright gave the band a recent Facebook boost – their lyrics a-seethe with socio-political anarcho tropes, their sound not atypically built on the sturdy assault dynamics of the form. That said, it should be hastily added that caveats abound. Where, based on those components, a particular level of pummeling aggression would summarily be expected, quite often on Vol. 1 that aggro prototype, while certainly existing, finds itself dueling in concert with an inherent, instantly accessible tuneability. Can’t know for sure, don’t know their process, but it does feel as if it comes innately to them, as if they can’t help but inject these tracks with a sweetening of melody.

 

Thus does “Partisan”‘s charging melodicism remind, despite its agit-prop leanings (“seems as if the first wave to die is the first wave to try“), of the Buzzcocks set on stun, the merciless, Blade Runner-minus-the-glamor “Satellite City” accrue its numerous elements – nimbly stalking bassline, the lost radio transmissions of a feedback guitar, the ticking (then martial pound) of drums, the eventual addition of some buzzsaw chording, a clear unruffled narrative vocal, quick hook-defining leads – until you’ve got yourself a dystopian mise en scène you can dance to, and the likes of “Dust” and, to a slightly lesser extent, “Tunnels” and “Bad Days End,” tilt in dalliance with pop-punk and come out all the stronger for it.

Long past, hopefully, are the days when a band’s punk bona fides depended primarily on sneering fuck-you confrontation and bratty anti-commercialism, when having the temerity to utilize a tune and a handful of hooks would win you such outrage from your loyal fans they find it fit to lay waste to a Paris theater as an expression of their ‘You sold out!’ angst (yes, I’m simplifying here but still, ask the Clash). Instead, Syndicate and their ilk – the aforementioned Arctic Flowers not least among them – seem to reflexively understand that it’s just as (if not more) possible to smash the state and initiate justice, to call out the preening hypocrisy that masquerades as political leadership, with messages attached to rocks that sing with melody as they shatter the windows of the palace. And all that aside? Excellent debut. [digital version available here, where you can also contact the band about those cassette and vinyl options]