The Unseen Light:
Kylesa Emerges From the Darkness With Its Best Music Yet
The rays do penetrate the maelstrom, reassuringly, ephemeral but gleaming. But from the jolting get-go, Kylesa’s new album, Ultraviolet (Season of Mist), is a restless fever dream of tidal turbulence, its catharsis determinedly punching forward while so much clustered chaos bears down, spinning you in distorted, claustrophobic orbits. You feel jostled around, dizzy, confused, unsure of direction or distance. But when those moments of clarity and peace land upon you, it feels pure. And when the whole thing’s over, damned if you don’t feel renewed. A breakthrough on multiple levels, this is one dazzling, powerful masterpiece of psychedelic hard rock. It’s more textured, artistic and personal than anything Kylesa’s ever made. And it kicks major ass.
Of course, this shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that’s followed this Savannah outfit for any substantial amount of time. One of the preeminent creative forces in the current realms of heavier rock ‘n’ roll, they’ve always fused punk, metal and psychedelic rock in compelling ways, and they’ve never, ever been content with inertia. They’ve consistently made strong albums, and their albums have gotten progressively stronger, more varied, more musically interesting. Still, this new one pushes deeper. It has more of their lives imprinted upon it. You can totally feel it.
And their lives – at least those of Kylesa’s two singers, guitarists and songwriters, Phillip Cope and Laura Pleasants – have been anything but stable and blissful in the years since their last album, 2010’s excellent Spiral Shadow. For Cope, “hospitals and heartbreak,” a line from the Ultraviolet shouter “What Does It Take,” succinctly sums it up. Relationship disintegration is always quick fodder for a few satisfying blasts of bitter lyrical venting, but he also faced a rebellion of sorts from his own body. The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle finally got the best of him, and health scares and hospital visits forced him to reassess his ways and get it under control. Better that than the alternative. He also moved last year from Savannah to Columbia, South Carolina, where he’s long held a position as a highly in-demand producer at Jay Matheson’s recording studio, the Jam Room. That’s where Cope produced Ultraviolet, and where he’s also worked with groups such as fellow Savannah-bred metallurgists Black Tusk and Baroness, Atlanta’s Withered and Lazer/Wulf (the latter currently on tour with Kylesa), Florida’s Dark Castle, Philly’s Fight Amp and New York’s Atakke.
Pleasants, meanwhile, went through what she described to Pitchfork as “hands down the worst period of my life.” Just over a year ago, her mother passed away from cancer. Laura spent much of the three years prior to that in the Greensboro/Winston-Salem area, caring for her.
“Really, since 2009 I was spending a lot of time in North Carolina,” she tells me. “I lived up there for a while. I lived with my mom and grandmother and kind of took care of them when I wasn’t traveling. And then when my mom got really sick, I just stayed up there. It’s part of life, but it certainly wasn’t… we weren’t ready for it, you know, as a family.”
Ultraviolet closes with Pleasants’ standout song “Drifting,” which like many Kylesa pieces is a multilayered journey with evolving moods and sections. This one begins with a distinctly Pink Floyd-like dawn, electric guitar giving off a reflective shimmer over a soft buzzing hum as trickles of bass scurry in the underbrush. Then a sort of processional ceremony commences, the drums urging us along with their deliberate march as Pleasants begins singing, almost trancelike, at once empathetic and numb, “Can you hear/ Can you see/ Can you sense that I am near.” She sounds like she’s either in your own head or in another dimension altogether. When the end comes and the anguish of finality erupts from within, she’s screaming: “I let go when you left/ Watched you drift away.” Written about the death of her mom, “Drifting” originated from bits of guitar Laura played at her mother’s bedside.
“Yeah. It’s really personal. I was just kinda playing to her. Towards the end, I mean, my mom was pretty much dead. And on a lot of morphine. So I was just kind of like playing guitar and messing around, and she was like, ‘Oh, that’s so pretty. Keep playing.’ I was just playing chords. But it ended up being…the last thing I played for her. The last thing that she heard me play. So I was like, okay, I’m gonna take those chords and that basic melody I was strumming on, and I’m gonna turn that into a song.”
I ask if her mom enjoyed Kylesa’s music, or if she found it too cacophonous and heavy.
“Oh, she loved it!” Pleasants says. “She thought it was great. She thought the double drumming was super cool. I think the drumming was her favorite part. I mean, it was heavy, but she was into it.”
I guess there’s a lot of people that could say that about Kylesa: “It’s heavy, but I’m into it.” I mean, they have their metalhead fans, naturally, but Kylesa’s music is so expansive, so uncontained by labels, basically so fucking cool that they have devotees from across the musical spectrum. Punk kids appreciate the hardcore muscle. Psych-heads love the lysergic, molten stew of sound. Indie rockers get the connection to bands like Built to Spill. Fans of ‘90s alt-rock have somehow noted a similarity to Smashing Pumpkins in the Ultraviolet track “Quicksand.” And music journalists appreciate their intelligence, among other things. And sure, it doesn’t hurt that there’s a hot chick on guitar. Me, I like all of the above, and also the fact that Kylesa has a really cool logo! All the best bands have great logos, after all.
“Yeah, It reminds me of an old school horror movie logo or something,” Pleasants says of their particular band name lettering, designed by famed punk/metal graphic artist Pushead, aka Brian Schroeder, who’s done logos and covers for a multitude of headbanger acts over the past thirty-odd years, including Metallica, the Necros, Corrosion of Conformity and Cope’s earlier band Damad. It’s an distinguishable design that instantly identifies their albums and singles, not to mention it looks really great on T-shirts. “Bands like the Misfits, Black Flag, Metallica had a good logo. Slayer had a good logo. And you’re like, man, we’ve gotta have a good logo!”
Speaking of T-shirts, that’s sorta how Cope and Pleasants met. She was attending SCAD, studying photography and playing in some punkish bands called The Flys and Mugshots. One night she went to a Damad show and when she saw Phillip wearing a Sabbath T-shirt, she knew right away that she needed to know this guy. She introduced herself, and soon thereafter they were jamming together and sowing the seeds for what would become Kylesa in 2001. At that early juncture, Pleasants was the only member who hadn’t been in Damad, a sludgy group that had basically ruled Savannah’s nascent metal underbelly during the ‘90s. But Kylesa’s membership has shifted nearly as much as its music, and today Cope and Pleasants are the only remaining original members. Rounding out the current quintet (not a trio – and never a trio, for that matter, despite their current official photos) are Carl McGinley and Eric Hernandez on drums (the former’s been with them since 2006; the latter joined in 2008, and spent a stint on bass), and bassist Chase Rudeseal, who also plays in a Savannah band called Crazy Bag Lady. Rudeseal hadn’t yet joined the lineup when their current photos were taken, and Hernandez lives in Miami and wasn’t around for the shoot, hence the trio confusion. “We’re not smart enough to realize that we should probably have taken photos while we were all at the studio and not waited,” admits Cope, obviously weary from being asked about it too much already.
As for Kylesa’s musical growth, Cope says “we knew early on that that would happen. When we first started the band, Laura and I kind of discussed that we weren’t going to let ourselves get stuck doing the same thing over and over. And that’s not the easiest thing to do, because you don’t want to alienate people as you go along, but at the same time, you have to stay interested in what you’re doing.”
Being that they’re also huge music fans with far-ranging interests, there’s always the constant discovery of previously unheard things as well, both new and old.
“It amazes me to this day that I’m still discovering things from even way far back that I didn’t know existed,” Cope agrees. “We like all kinds of music. I really don’t think there’s a style I don’t like, but I just like certain artists from every style. I’m just kind of picky about who I like… I’ve become a huge fan of late ‘70s, early ‘80s dub.”
Dub is a very psychedelic form of music, I point out.
“Oh yeah – super trippy. And I definitely, as a producer, take an influence from that. And there’s little things in Kylesa that aren’t really noticeable, but things like drum delays that definitely come from that influence.” Just listen to the drums on the intro section of “Unspoken” at about a minute in, just before the air strike hits, for a little taste of some Kylesa dub.
For her part, Pleasants tells me that “I’ve delved heavily into ‘60s psychedelic rock, and ‘70s rock the past seven or eight years. I’ve been listening to more electronic stuff as well. And then recently I found a bunch of old country records – and I’ve never been a huge fan of country, just ’cause there’s so much bad country out there, but then I found some of the good old stuff, and I discovered I like a lot of the old female country singers. So that’s been kind of a fun discovery. I had my records in storage for a long time, ‘cause I was kind of gypsy living in North Carolina and not living in Savannah. I got them out like a year or so ago, and I have them in my possession again. I’ve been continually buying records, but it’s so nice to have them back, and I can rediscover things that I haven’t listened to in a while.”
With their recent life upheavals behind them, Cope and Pleasants are rediscovering the familiar joy of taking to the road, playing their music with each other every night, reinventing it slightly every time, and getting up close with their fans. Though Kylesa have earned an enviable amount of respect and notoriety (yes, that’s Laura front and center on the August 2012 issue of Decibel magazine, alongside Mlny Parsonz of fellow Georgians Royal Thunder and Marissa Martinez of Cretin, for a “Women in Metal” special issue), Pleasants laughs when I suggest that they’re past the struggling phase.
“It is always a struggle! I mean, we’re not playing basements like we were when we started. My perspective has changed because I’ve experienced a LOT by doing this from the ground up. And I’m also very aware of how important our fans are. Because without them, we wouldn’t be able to do this. They are essentially supporting us. I’m thankful that we have people that care about our music. ‘Cause it’s something that’s very important to us, and intimate, you know. To be able to share that with people is a unique experience.”
Photo by Geoff Johnson.