Hope, optimism, positivity —qualities such as these tend not to fit so comfortably into metal’s harsh and destructive aesthetic. There’s no rule that says metal can’t, or isn’t meant to be positive, but in the context of a genre based on extreme, powerful and even violent sound, they make an awkward fit. There aren’t even many metal love songs, for that matter, and what ones exist — like most of Converge’s Jane Doe, for instance — tend to be more about what happens when hearts get torn chamber by chamber. Death, misery, Satan, the occult, mythology and the limits of human endurance make far better bedfellows with Marshall-blowing riffs, and for good reason: fear, tests of will and huge fucking beasts make for much more entertaining escapism than daily affirmations.
Savannah’s Kylesa has never seemed all that interested in doing what a metal band is expected to do, and on 2010’s incredible Spiral Shadow, they broke the motivational barrier with “Don’t Look Back,” an anthem that could make any listener, hesher or non-, feel fit to run a marathon. The whole of Spiral Shadow, for that matter, seemed pointed toward allowing more light into the band’s psychedelic sludge chamber, and the result of its unorthodox melodic warmth was the best metal album of 2010 (Dissenters, come at me). Kylesa’s flirtation with optimism and determination didn’t last long, however; not long after that album’s release, principal songwriters Laura Pleasants and Phillip Cope both endured a period marked by loss, tragedy and personal hardships that neither have, since, been comfortable speaking about on record. The particulars of their experiences may be too personal to address directly, but they fueled the creation of the band’s sixth album, Ultraviolet, a dark and emotionally complex album that builds on the successes of its predecessor.
I’ll skip to the chase — there is no “Don’t Look Back” on Ultraviolet. It’s an album written in the aftermath of personal trauma, and as such, it’s a dark one. Where on past albums like Static Tensions, Kylesa took greater influence from ‘90s post-hardcore, there’s an even more pronounced goth and post-punk element to the band’s sound. The thick, sludgy textures that the band has cultivated over the past decade remain, but they’re tempered with atmospheric components, often bordering on shoegaze. Leadoff track “Exhale” opens with riffs that suggest a John Carpenter soundtrack gone grunge, with Pleasants and Cope trading shouts of “morbidity,” “actuality” and “complicity.” It’s not a full immersion into the morose fog the group conjures up later in the album, but it’s a suitable transition between the dense punch of the band’s previous albums and the miasma concocted later on.
Second track “Unspoken” is where Kylesa locks into a heavy post-punk sound that marks one of the most interesting directions they’ve taken in a fairly long and fruitful career. There’s still a heaviness about it that’s unmistakably the band’s own, but “Unspoken” finds its greater triumphs in melody and texture. Effects-laden, minor-key riffs guide a path toward a climactic and soaring chorus, with Pleasants’ multitracked vocals backing herself as she delivers cryptic verses that point toward the pain that inspired much of the album (“My heart is pounding/ You turned the other way”). There’s a brief foray into some Southern sludge boogie (“Grounded”), and a fairly straightforward bruiser (“We’re Taking This”), but from the atmospheric long gone forward, Ultraviolet sheds most of its conventional metal tropes for an intense, yet ultimately rewarding descent into gothic textures and shoegazing punk.
The weirder and more experimental moments on the album, it turns out, are also the most accessible. The dense, kaleidoscopic layers of guitar that drive the two-minute, pounding “What Does It Take” make for a surprisingly fun interlude between some of the album’s dirge-heavy moments. One such dirge, “Steady Breakdown,” feels like classic Kylesa on codeine, its swirling riffs backing one of the more defeatist songs on the album, as Pleasants sings of a “loss of free will,” and with a chorus that culminates in a refrain of “What a let-down.” “Low Tide” rides a shimmer reminiscent of The Cure’s Disintegration, and with a melody that, under ordinary circumstances, would likely never end up on a metal record. Yet two of the album’s most thrilling tracks, “Vulture’s Landing” and “Quicksand,” pair some of the most upbeat sounds with some of the darkest imagery. Pleasants hits higher registers in the former, a trippy post-hardcore highlight pocked with accusations such as “You’re just a wolf in sheep’s attire,” while the latter is a hard-grooving mid-tempo rocker, in which Pleasants laments “choking on my own blood.”
At the center of Ultraviolet, there is a dark and wounded heart, but the material pumping from its arteries is more colorful and vibrant than ever. Even the album’s title — quite literally — references light. It’s not so hard to reconcile, given that the one thing nearly every metal album has in common is a feeling of catharsis, which Ultraviolet has in spades. Though there’s a therapeutic element to Cope and Pleasants funneling their darkest experiences into their music, Ultraviolet finds them rising above it. Where once they were hit with emotional lows, they have transcended into new musical highs. Keep moving; don’t look back.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.