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The Peace Which Passeth Understanding: Kylesa’s Ultraviolet

Season of the Mist

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Kylesa’s name should tell you something about the originality and ambition of the Savannah, Georgia quartet. You tell me how many metal bands would name themselves after “kilesa mara,” a Buddhist term denoting deceptive mental states, and I’ll reveal to you that metal’s sign of the horns is your true visual mantra.

The thing about “kilesa mara” is that it signifies destructive emotions, such as anxiety, fear, desire, and depression, among many others. These emotions, according to Buddhists, aren’t real because they derive from ignorance, attachment, and aversion.

Kylesa makes music that in voicing (loudly and heavily) the destructive emotions that plague my life, helps purge me of negativity and reach the state of catharsis about which Aristotle speaks when he discusses the goal of tragedy in the ancient Greek theatre of Aeschylus and Sophocles.

Kylesa as a modern-day metal Aeschylus or Sophocles? Ultraviolet as a modern-day metal Prometheus Bound or Antigone? Sounds good to me. Let the purgation begin.

Ultraviolet begins with “Exhale,” a swarming noise of sludge guitars and pounding rhythms, which builds in dynamic tension as the group’s singer-guitarists – Laura Pleasants and Phillip Cope – trade off vocal lines. The lyrics are difficult to discern, but that doesn’t matter. The guitar playing is so aggressive, noisy, and precise, and the vocal melodies so punk, that the meaning shines through. The song is about exhaling the “morbidity” – one of the words that Cope, as producer, makes sure is heard – that threatens to drown us.

On “Unspoken,” Pleasants and Cope create an intricately picked and moody guitar introduction that resolves in a noisy attack. The song sounds like the love child of The Cure and Black Sabbath – only played with more excitement. Pleasants’ soaring lead vocal kicks ass – I hope that she can somehow see the metal horns that I’m holding up to her through my MacBook screen – as she tells the story of the “emptiness” that results from the end of love. But as Kylesa takes off behind her with a sweet tempo change – and a return to the intricate intro, now played faster – and some almost-growling backing vocals from Cope, you feel that she’s getting the blues out of her system.

Whereas “Grounded, “We’re Taking This,” “What Does It Take,” and “Vultures Landing” (which has the best riff and solo on the record) are metal crushers that Cope strengthens and makes new with his intricate, atmospheric production, “Long Gone” is one of the best songs you’ll hear this year. Pleasants delivers a stately melody that she sings in lock step with Carl McGinley’s processional drums. But then McGinley gets the idea that he wants to change things up a bit, and he proceeds into a tribal drum solo that inspires jaw-dropping psychedelic guitar atmospherics. The tempo then changes, and as McGinley goes back into a more rock-based beat, the guitars become bluesy and, then, at the end, totally metal.

All of this happens in a concise 3:27.

“Steady Breakdown” features another terrific Pleasants melody and vocal performance. It’s on this track especially that you realize Cope’s talent as a producer – he makes his bandmate’s excellent voice sound like it’s coming at you from a different planet but also from within your own heart. And what’s really cool is how Pleasants sings a complex tale about the emotions surrounding a breakup over what’s perhaps the most complex track on the record. In other words, complex feelings equal complex music here – and Cope includes so many different guitar riffs, sounds, and solos (and a Theremin, for good measure) that drop in and out of the mix that the song becomes a miracle of production. Indeed, by the end, when Kylesa kicks up the tempo a notch and gets crazy loud with their guitars, Pleasants’ voice is no longer necessary. The music speaks volumes more than any lyrics could.

On “Low Tide” and “Quicksand,” Kylesa fully explore their ability to create sheer metal beauty. On the former, Cope shows off his vocal chops, singing a rangy melody, Pleasants backs him with expertise, and the Eric Hernandez-McGinley rhythm section rules. But the song becomes truly exciting and memorable in its last minute when Hernandez, McGinley, and guest Steve Sancho quiet things down, get moody, and exchange some stunning bass, drums, and percussion riffs.

Kylesa bases “Quicksand” on one of those awe-inspiring riffs that’s elegant and noisy at the same time. The band punctuates this riff with white noise that escalates throughout the song and provides a lead-in to the album’s brilliant closer, “Drifting.”

“Drifting” opens with beautiful guitar arpeggios that the band backs with the same white noise sound with which “Quicksand” ends. In unison, Pleasants and Cope sing, “Can you hear? / Can you see?,” their voices arriving in your ears like banshee calls that seduce you into empathizing with their pain. But, then, the real screaming starts and the guitars kick into high gear. “I let go when you left,” Pleasants shouts as the track comes to its end.

Am I either drifting or purged after listening to Ultraviolet? Ultimately, Kylesa helps me realize that it’s not a question of either/or – but rather one of both/and. It’s impossible to escape “kilesa mara” – in Kylesa’s world, at least. And, I guess, their world is mine. So their music signifies the importance of the attempt to cleanse oneself of the negative demons that hinder one’s ability to live in – to quote T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land – “The peace which passeth understanding.”

—Paul Gleason