Sylvus: All For One

By Natalie Zed

There are some bands that just fit. There’s a great deal of music I appreciate aesthetically, intellectually and from a slight distance. Then there’s some music — much less common but much more wonderful — that strikes a deeper chord, burrows in and stains my eardrums. It’s the difference between meeting someone and knowing they will be a friendly acquaintance, someone whose company you enjoy and who you look forward to seeing, or they are going to be a lover. Sylvus are a band that I don’t just listen to, but I actively invest in. A lover.

Sylvus are a Toronto, ON-based band that have undergone significant transformations. After going on hiatus for a year, they returned to the stage with a completely new aesthetic, songs and bassist. They play black metal with tinges of pagan folk and almost otherworldly hints of psychedelic noise. Their music is by turns thunderous, tender and startling; it also happens to be produced by some lovely human beings.

The interview doesn’t feel like an interview. I meet the four bandmates at a Mexican restaurant and we order a round of drinks. We chatter away about our lives, school and music. Guitarist Anastasia Ikonnikova teases me, asking, “Are you going to ask me what it’s like to be a girl in a band?” I think, at first, that we’ll drink and catch up, and then I’ll start asking questions I have solicitously prepared.

I never get to ask a single one. The conversation turns and changes. Suddenly, I realize that we’re already in the middle of things, neck-deep in an analysis of the band’s aesthetic. Ana says, “I think we should be recording this,” and I fumble for my phone, catching what I can.

Like all things with Sylvus, the conversation evolves organically and at its own pace. I mention the first time I’d seen Sylvus play happened to be their return show from their hiatus. Their songs were like raw ore, referred to only by numbers instead of titles; it felt like a risky show and a performance with something to prove.

Guitarist and vocalist Darcy Ibson jumps on this. “First and foremost, we’re a live band. That is where we belong.”

Ana adds, “Live shows most accurately capture what we’re trying to do.”

Darcy continues, “We wanted to get back on stage as soon as possible when we had new material and a new lineup, because we knew that’s where we wanted to be.”

With an aesthetic so firmly anchored in the live experience, I wonder whether the recording process is challenging.

“I love our recordings, but I find the sound so strange; it feels like a snapshot, one performance that we happened to record,” comments Ana. “We know we have to make albums, but it’s in a live setting that Sylvus really belong. There are also issues with recording that affect the sound. For example, I love our drums — Zakk’s drumming is incredible — but on the demo, we had to mix them lower than I would have liked because the cymbals were so bright. That’s not an issue in a live setting.”

Despite any reservations they may have about the recording process, their output has been extremely prolific. In addition to a self-titled full-length, they have just finished another demo, entitled The Beating of Black Wings.

Ana’s face splits into a grin when I inquire about it; her face lights up. “The demo is fantastic. The lyrics, they just blow me away. I can’t wait for people to hear it.”

Darcy Ibson is the sole lyricist in the band; he also provides the vocals. Despite the fact that there is no clean singing, the music benefits greatly from Darcy’s powerful, balanced voice. He performs his harsh vocals not to cover a lack of tone, but to use the skill and talent he does have to deepen each rasp and growl.

Darcy lowers his broad shoulders; he seems a little embarrassed when I talk about his voice. “To be completely honest, I chose vocals because I couldn’t stand the idea of having to sing someone else’s stupid lyrics, or have them placed over my music.”

Sylvus’s lyrics are grand without being pretentious, narrative rather than overly poetic. “I am a storyteller,” Darcy says. “There is somewhere I want to take my listeners.”

Ana also believes that the music itself should have narrative drive. “Part of our job as musicians is to help the story move forward, give it the energy.”

Though Darcy is the primary lyricist, Sylvus’s music is written collectively. Each band member asserts that everyone contributes, has a voice and something to add. While everyone focuses on their instruments, they often write parts for each other as well.

Drummer Zakk Da Costa, for instance, often offers input to the guitar players. “There’s about one Zakk riff in every song,” Ana says. “Sometimes there isn’t one and sometimes there are more than one, but generally there’s at least one Zakk riff per song. And they are solid. We would not sound the same without him.”

It’s immediately clear that each of these musicians has a profound respect for the others, creatively and personally. It’s a lovely and, sadly, somewhat rare thing to see bandmates with so much genuine affection for each other.

When I mention love, Ana pounces on the word. “Absolutely. We fucking love each other.”

Darcy nods sagely. “I have an incredible amount of respect for all these guys. I mean, I have some fights with these two,” he points to Ana and Zakk, “but it’s because we all care, passionately, and we never fail to respect each other. We know we all care.”

Photo by Phil Miller

Sylvus don’t have an obvious internal hierarchy, more an ebb and flow of energy. Ana is the most animated, leaping to answer questions, overflowing with words, her hands fluttering like white birds with her gestures. Darcy has firm answers and speaks with measured, confident authority. He chooses his words with academic sureness. Zakk and Luke (bass) are quieter, but contribute with body language and gestures. When they do have something to say, the others immediately defer, valuing their words.

They don’t talk about hierarchies directly either, but do mention the place each member occupies, as well as their sphere of influence. Zakk notes in his cavernous baritone that “While it’s arguable that Darcy is the better technical guitar, I think that if Ana left the band, we would lose more of what makes our sound — that weird, spacey quality to the music that makes us Sylvus.”

Ana nods vigorously. “I am getting better.”

Darcy adds that, “She creates crazy atmospheric sounds, gives the music spirit and heart.”

“I also contribute a lot to the melodies,” Ana adds.

Her bandmates wholeheartedly agree.

Then Ana grins again. “But I still have to ask you what note I am supposed to be on all the time.”

The boys chuckle.

For all their considerable talent and skill, Sylvus are still very much a growing band, and a very young one at that.

Ana looks over at her bassist and drummer. “Are we all at least 20 now?” Zakk and Luke nod. I shake my head. Very few 20-year olds would have the depth and commitment to play at this level, and with such professionalism. The three of them all joined Sylvus when they were still teenagers.

Darcy, slightly older than the other three, is aware of how precocious his bandmates are. “It has been an incredible privilege to watch them grow as musicians, even in the last year, the improvements have been so dramatic.”

Ana adds, “Yeah, like Zakk, I’ve watched him become such an incredible drummer.”

Darcy sees himself as the “Grandpa of the band,” despite only recently turning 26. He is quick to point out that this doesn’t make him the patriarch.

With strong, aesthetically distinct music and positive, youthful members, Sylvus are definitely a band with a bright future. Though they’re currently moving forward at an impressive pace, they still encounter stumbling blocks.

Being a band from Toronto, there’s a type of geographic gravity that ensnares many T.O. bands. Darcy notes that, “There are some bands that have years of experience, great recordings behind them, that never do anything with it. They never go out and tour, never support the material they have. They just get stuck in Toronto, being a local band forever. That’s not what we want for Sylvus.” However, they can’t quite be free of Toronto’s gravitational pull just yet. “We play as much as we can, but we’re all in school and work. We have anchors here. But we know there will be a time when we have to get out there in order to grow.”

With the prospect of a tour still somewhat distant, Sylvus continue to grow, aspiring to become one of the bigger fish in Toronto’s musical pond before finally seeking open water. One thing is perfectly clear while talking to the band, witnessing their easy affection, listening to the passion with which they describe their music and the music of artists they admire: each and every member of Sylvus is doing exactly what they should be doing. They play heavy metal because they must, and because they love it.

Finally, the conversation draws to a close. We all feel it. Most of the table stands for a smoke or bathroom break, only Luke and I are left behind. He’s been attentive but silent throughout the entire interview.

“I want to make sure your voice is heard here too. Do you have anything you want to add?”

He looks up thoughtfully for a second, weighing his words carefully. Then, piercing blue eyes meet mine again. “No, they covered it.” A pause. “I love working with this band. These people. They’re great.”

Sylvus black and white live photo courtesy of Caroline Whalen. See more of her photos online at http://www.flickr.com/photos/40701661@N04/

The new Sylvus demo The Beating Of Black Wings can be downloaded for free by visiting here

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.