By Laura Wiebe Taylor
San Francisco boasts a long and well-recognized tradition of musical creativity. Not just an artefact of the past, this inventiveness has carried through to the present. Saros stands out among the Bay Area’s current crop of eclectic and talented artists, fusing multiple influences and personalities into a flowing inundation of moody aggression.
By February of 2004, Saros existed as a four-piece collaborative unit: Leila Abdul-Rauf and Ben Aguilar on guitar, Blood Eagle on drums, and Tim Scammell on bass. “We then tried to find a lead vocalist to front the band, but the auditions were comically disastrous,” Leila explains, “so I decided to step up to vocal duties, despite having never fronted a band before.” Ben is the band’s main songwriter, but there’s no one person in charge. It took some time, but the members of Saros eventually – through a lot of hard work – learned how to collectively communicate and focus. “Our songwriting approach is very symbiotic; one person fills in the gaps where each of us is lacking, and each pull our own weight in that respect,” says Leila. “We work very collaboratively, which is interesting since we each have very strong and dominant personalities. We were able to get past these tendencies somehow…”
Living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area has inevitably affected what Saros has become. But this impact is less about any one influence and more an issue of diversity and benefitting from the creativity and resources in the local scene. For Leila, both history and the current scene are “inspiring and sometimes overwhelming. There’s almost too much going on here that it’s hard to keep up with everything. Creatively, I think it’s the most diverse music scene in the world. There’s no expectation to fit into a specific mold or genre, and so there are lots of cool original sounding bands you don’t find in other parts of the country.”
“The Bay Area is very nurturing creatively,” Tim adds. “The abundance of heavy music here definitely makes it easy to find musicians, bands, audiences and venues to work with, but it also raises the bar for new bands since so much has been done here locally over the last several decades. Musically, I think we are all inspired by the history of the area without any interest in recreating what has already been done.”
Listening to Saros’s second full length album, Acrid Plains, this characterization of the Bay Area underground metal scene begins to take sonic shape. Though it’s possible to pin-point some musical influences or connections they come from a wide range of sources – as disparate as Death and Lush. That the band developed in a scene with no overriding generic expectations is clear in the diversity of the Saros sound.
Tim identifies multiple shared influences, ranging from Death to Black Sabbath, Enslaved, Coroner and Pink Floyd, but he adds that within the band “individual tastes can vary greatly.” That variance can be as much a challenge as an asset. The members of Saros have taken advantage of their differences, drawing on diversity as a strength. Tim explains: “As the band has grown, it has become much easier to incorporate our individual influences in a way that works for everyone. It is part of understanding where the rest of Saros is coming from. There was more conflict earlier in the band when we were trying to find our sound while channelling our influences.”
Leila continues: “We probably have more non-metal influences overall, but it was our metal influences that brought us together at the beginning.” She sees the band members’ different influences as a source of interesting and original sounds. “For instance, I’m pretty influenced by a lot of 4AD bands I listened to when growing up that the rest of the band are less into or less familiar with. I also enjoy playing and contributing to writing heavy music more than I like to listen to it in my spare time…”
Ben also emphasizes the benefits of having individual and varied tastes. It may make songwriting challenging, but it also provokes “many different opinions and interpretations of riffs and ideas.” He elaborates: “Leila and I do the majority of the song writing, but we value Tim and Sam’s opinions. Their input and playing styles have as much of an impact on the outcome of a song as the riffs do. Most of our songs are rather long, so it’s difficult for one person to write every part. When I write a song, I usually get stuck somewhere. This is where the band steps in with their ideas. Sometimes this process is tedious. Sometimes it’s simple. As long as the end result is a good song, all of the work is well worth it.” As Leila says – collaborative and symbiotic.
Saros’s first album, Five Pointed Tongue, came out in 2006, two years after the band’s formation. That’s a fairly short time to write, record and release an album, especially for musicians who were still finding their stride. “The process wasn’t totally smooth,” Leila says. “We are all really different people with opposite personalities and it took a few years to get used to working well together and get past our difficulties. Five Pointed Tongue was really supposed to be a second demo, which turned out being our debut full length, but we were just getting our bearings in terms of songwriting at that point.” Ben describes a similar process of learning to write songs collectively. “We had tons of riffs and ideas. It was like a giant puzzle. All of the pieces were there, we just had to figure out how to put them together.”
There’s an obvious continuity from that first collection of Saros tracks to the new album, Acrid Plains, but also significant growth. The band identifies this development with words like “relaxed” and “flow.” As Leila explains, “We have a much more relaxed approach to the band after recording Acrid Plains, and work better together now than we ever have. It feels much more focused, confident and seasoned now.” Tim continues: “I think there was a clearer idea of what Saros is when it came to working on Acrid Plains. Five Pointed Tongue was written over a longer period and we had nothing to compare it to as a band during the writing process. With Acrid, we were more interested in capturing an overall mood through the songs and let them evolve more naturally. We were also better players by the time Acrid Plains came about, which I also think adds to the more relaxed/less urgent sound of the album.”
In terms of flow, for the listener this comes through in the album’s overall coherence. Acrid Plains feels more like one large multi-part composition than a collection of individual songs. The movement between melodic riffs, pounding rhythms and eviscerating vocals, soft harmonies, laid-back groove and airy progression – it all unfolds like a natural soundscape. Ben: “For some reason we get into a certain mindset when writing an album. That’s why all of the songs fit together. Although the songs on Acrid are different from one another, they all come from the same place. We were really into the ‘flow’ of the songs as opposed to songs with a million riffs. I guess that’s because the songs are long. Long songs get boring if they don’t flow. Five Pointed Tongue was more about riffing.” Leila adds that the flow is definitely intentional, part of trying to create a “seamless” listening experience for those who appreciate the album form. “I don’t think we’ve completely gotten there yet, but we’re excited about the new material are now writing that I think will bring us closer to that goal.”
There’s a similar connective flow between the music and lyrics on Acrid Plains, with Saros evoking a heavy intensity but also a more imaginative, even surreal, atmosphere at times. “The music and lyrics work very closely with Saros,” says Time. While the music is usually written first, the lyrics definitely need to capture the mood of a song in order to serve their purpose. I think any surreal notions are intentional and we tend to stay away from anything too literal. The music tends to be dramatic and varied and having somewhat abstract lyrics helps add to the overall experience. While there is a lot of meaning behind everything we do, we like to encourage the listener to open up and make their own conclusion without beating them over the head with anything too blatant.”
Lyric writing is primarily Leila’s job, a mostly solitary experience. “I think the lyrics probably come across as more surreal than I intend them to be. I usually have a specific, literal concept in mind, something usually very personal and real. I’m also very conscious about not just the word meanings, but the actual sounds and vowels in the words I use, so sometimes the words flow at the expense of the meaning being easily or literally interpreted, but I prefer it that way.”
Acrid Plains mixes dreamy, ethereal passages into a harsher, more aggressive matrix. At one extreme, “As the Tyrant Falls Ill (Reprise)” features an appearance by Leila’s Amber Asylum bandmate, Kris Force. The song is short but “soft all the way through,” containing some of the most restrained, dream-like moments on the record. At the other end is Billy Anderson’s production, which Leila describes as “important especially in making the drums sound big and the heavy parts in general. Although the band contributed heavily to the mixing and I think the sound ended up being more clean and atmospheric than the stuff Billy usually produces [Neurosis, High on Fire, Sleep, The Melvins], so we went further in that direction than he probably would have if left to his own devices.”
The heavy parts are, unsurprisingly, the facet of Saros that translates best to live performance, though Ben says the band is “working on incorporating some of the ‘dreamy’ stuff” into the live show. “It’s all about the delay, reverb, and chorus pedals.” Explains Leila, “I think we come across as more raw and aggressive live than we do on recordings. It’s more stripped down, especially in the guitars and vocals, since our recordings are usually pretty layered with effects, harmonies, acoustic guitar and other instruments.” Tim agrees: “The live show is probably more intense than the recordings. We try to capture tone and texture over volume, but some of the dreamier studio elements can’t be translated live and we want to have a loud energetic live performance. A live show also has the element of a crowd which can really step things up a bit.” The crowd factor makes live performance Tim’s favourite part of the job. “The end result of writing and recording is great and the creative process can be really engaging, but the release from a live show is why I play music,” he says. “The immediacy and energy of being in a room with an audience is what makes being in a band so much fun. It is the ability to see your creative endeavor being played out in real time and is also a true test of what you can do outside of the studio.” So far Saros’s live performance has been confined to the west coast of North American, but they plan to head east “as soon as the opportunity arises,” Leila says.
For the members of Saros, their work together coexists with work in other projects, past and present: Amber Asylum, Bastard Noise, Ion Channel, Embers of Euphoria, Weakling… But it’s not so much musical intersections that make multiple bands a tricky prospect; it’s actually the logistics that can make things difficult. So far, coordinating timing hasn’t held Saros back. “Saros is everyone’s main project even though most of us play in at least one other band,” says Tim. “Anything we do outside of Saros is pretty distinct and the ideas channel pretty naturally. The biggest issue would be working out a practice schedule, but we are pretty open as long as everything is being taken care of.” For Leila the division between acts isn’t so clear. “The boundaries have somewhat blurred as Saros’s sound has become more diverse,” she explains. “An idea I might have used for Amber Asylum could actually now work for Saros, or vice versa. I try not to compartmentalize my ideas as much as I used to. Dividing up rehearsal time and touring for me is the biggest challenge, and finding time to write and flesh out new ideas; I just try to do my best with what time I have.”
Acrid Plains is available now on Profound Lore Records