Drone

REVIEW: mayako xo - mayako xo

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Phillipe Roberts

mayako xo makes a terrifying first impression. Visit the Bandcamp page for her self-titled record and the “single” you’re treated to, “Ma Says,” is less a warm introduction than an attempt to drag you into a personal vision of hell. Its grueling eight-minute length and monotonous, looped central riff forces your ear to lean in to the subtle inflections: a delightfully soured vocal note, alternating dissonant scrapes up and down the fretboard. And all of this strung together by the subtle horror of a Shel Silverstein poem.

“And I ain’t too smart,” she intones in a dark, ritualistic voice, “But there’s one thing for certain.” Your whole body stands at attention. A lone bass note wobbles and dissipates, carrying all the air in the room out with it. “Either Ma is wrong / Or else God is.” The original work contains none of this horror, but it’s mayako xo’s ability to read between the lines, to seize those empty spaces and twist them into something deadly, that makes the album such an enchanting listen.

For a record composed mostly of droning passages and spoken-word self-dialogue, the hypnotic nature of the music allows mayako xo to slip right past you with unexpected briskness. Rather than build up to ear-splitting crescendos or massive beat drops, the artist siphons off the energy; these songs collapse rather than explode, shriveling up in a heat-death coma of eerie silence. Opening track “The Ship” seems to take particular pleasure in catharsis denial. The instrumental is the busiest on the album, a romp through clattering tom-toms and tambourines and a menacing, see-sawing flute sample. Her voice rattles off pitch-shifted entreaties to be made whole: “I hear you want me / Can’t you call me / Deliver me to me?” And then the bottom end falls out, leaving her voice twisting and distorted, curling off like smoke trails into the darkness.

mayako xo likes her darknesses vast, with plenty of space and reverb to the backing tracks. They sound distant in contrast to her voice, giving the sense that she’s singing along to music playing through the walls of a vast hall or church. Her breathy melodies are gritty and drawn out, wavering in and out and frequently complemented by a harmonizer that adds a second voice in a different pitch. On “Mud,” this secondary presence mocks her, chanting “I’m not anyone / I’m not anyone,” like a grotesque, nagging inner voice amplifying her most self-defeating impulses. On “The Truth,” the effect is angelic, soaring weightlessly over a heavy, doom-inspired guitar drearily headbanging in tow. But throughout the record, she keeps this juxtaposition of space constant; her voice drives the music entirely, never enveloped completely by the encroaching horror breathing down her neck.

mayako xo is a brisk journey through warped mental states, an excavation of personal truth through hypnotic ritual. Sparse yet alluring in its seductive simplicity, it’s a labyrinth of emotion whose details have to be searched with bare hands, hugging the walls to keep track of where you’ve been. There may not be any climactic hallelujah moment on the other side, but mayako xo captures the beauty of wandering the internal maze.

REVIEW: Somber - Night Divorce

Kelly Kirwan

Somber are a Portland-based four-piece who have drawn their soundscape in charcoal strokes—a sketch filled with black and gray hues, shadows and silhouettes outlined by crinkled edges. Pulling languid vocals from shoegaze and gloomy introspection from goth rock, they have cultivated a sound swirling with off-kilter synths and an uneasy daze. On their debut album, Night Divorce, these elements call you in over the course of seven tracks, beckoning you towards a darkness from a parallel dimension. The magnetic pulse of their melodies lures us into a surreal place, both unnerving and vaguely familiar, like a dream that left you caked with sweat and a spiked heart rate.

The feeling turns out to be intentional. Night Divorce uses lead vocalist and keyboardist Myrrh Crow's bouts with night terrors and sleep paralysis as a jumping off point, searching for resolve and relief. Speaking to The Portland Mercury, Crow recalled an inability to discern these dreams from reality, resulting in a haze that soon turned to torment. It’s a feeling that's emphasized on a track like “Soft/Stale,” where forceful patterings from the drums and thrashes of the guitar seem to swell inside a wide, rolling expanse marked by cloudy skies, with only glimmers of hope peering through occasionally. Crow’s voice gradually pierces the surface of the melody, moving up a notch in urgency from its more subdued, lethargic setting. “I’m a waking nightmare,” she sings, taking her time to enunciate and stretch the syllables in those last two words. 

The album inhabits a world somewhere between the one we live in and the one we dream in. It’s evident even in the naming of their tracks, which alternate between Roman numerals and more “conventional” names—a weaving of the rational and mathematical with the emotive and abstract. The numbered tracks all rest somewhere between one and two minutes; interludes between dreams that come apart and then reassemble. In one—the final track "IV"—a delicate piano forms the song’s base, giving us a rare moment of softness that displays Somber's ability to add a little gleam to their brooding. Of course, “IV” still incorporates a touch of dissonance but it’s much more subdued, and it leads us out of the dream and into waking life with subtle skill.

Closing Night Divorce on this more fragile note offers a sense of renewal, a certain peace after an all-encompassing, gripping and nuanced tumult. It tops off an overall strong yet thoughtful statement (especially for a debut release) that showcases Somber’s affinity for finding tension and contradiction, and using it to their advantage.

TRACK REVIEW: Fond Han - New Alright

Kelly Kirwan

New Jersey-based group Fond Han is awash in crinkling, blue-feeling indie rock. A certain static coats their guitar riffs as world-weary vocals waft through, and facets of punk and prog deliver a rough touch that doesn't aggravate. Fond Han has a taste for the mismatched rhythms so often associated with math rock, and their songs have no idle space; they're filled to the brim and overflowing with fuzzy edges. Their latest single, "New Alright," naturally follows suit.

The track opens with tangy guitar strums and a nasally pitch that twists and bends towards the end of its note, with just a small dose of distortion, as is Fond Han's style. The tension builds over its three-minute span, the vocals morphing into an angst-riddled, airy shout as the instruments swell and then topple over one another. There's a guitar skittering out, a quick pattering of drums, and a moment of sonic anarchy that grips us, and our emotions spike with feelings of earnest desperation, a kind of riot against everyday ennui. The lyrics are often shrouded by the melody, which crackles with the white-noise intensity of a shoddy phone line—an element which very much jives with their haywire style.

"New Alright" offers a sullen sort of catharsis, a rallying cry for nonconformity that manages to bypass the pitfall of feeling contrived. But then again, this is a band that's taken up the genre labels of "rink donk" and "shark doom," so convention has never been their benchmark. That's a good thing for anyone who gets the chance to listen.

REVIEW: Cloud Becomes Your Hand - Rest In Fleas

Laura Kerry

Cloud Becomes Your Hand makes music that elicits vocabulary of physical space more than that of music. Listening to the eight tracks on Rest In Fleas feels like wandering through a strange and fantastical landscape inhabited by swarming insects, visions of childhood blankets, a storm at sea, and a shroom growing out of a shoe under a boulder. As you might have guessed, the Brooklyn-based band borrows heavily from psychedelic music and its more art-inclined cousin, prog-rock, and its structures meander journey-like through futuristic synths, retro flutes, and other voices. Each new instrument and lyrical image feels like an encounter with an otherworldly being.

The name of the band comes from a former project of founder Stephe Cooper, referring to a stage direction about a cloud hand puppet. Throughout Rest In Fleas, the band pulls the same kind of playful switcheroo, where things constantly transform into others. On “Bridge of Ignorance Returns,” a synth voice sounds like the speech of a small alien creature; on the more accessible songs, such as “Garden of the Ape” and “Made of Teak,” comprehensible structures break down midway into chaos; and on “Rest in Fleas,” “teeth are eyebrows” and a “head is an apple.” Added to music-box synth sounds littered throughout, the surreal mutations feel like the effect of funhouse mirrors in a child’s dream carnival.

Of course, many carnivals have a seedy underbelly, and as the title of Cloud Becomes Your Hand’s album suggests, it has one, too. At the start of the title track, after the line about teeth eyebrows and apple heads, the singer continues, “I live in the sewer / And I drink my own vomit,” a line more hilariously skeevy than actually dark. But the tone of Rest In Fleas does occasionally sound ominous. The mostly-instrumental “Bridge Of Ignorance Returns,” for example, begins with a low, sinister riff and urgent, driving percussion, and while instrumental voices later sound like funny creatures, they first resemble quiet screams. And even though “Rest in Fleas” relies on a silly wordplay, its premise is clear: “Rest in fleas / Someday they’ll bury me.”

In an album that is resoundingly mischievous and experimental in a lighthearted way, these moments are just the shadowy corners. After “Aye Aye” breaks down in the middle, it picks up its catchy melody again as if nothing ever happened; this is the way the whole album trudges merrily on. Each moment—usually delightful, sometimes menacing, and often confounding—is another step on the journey (or rather, trip) through Cloud Becomes Your Hand’s remarkable terrain.