In this age of post-modern songwriting and culturally blended musicianship, finding something which is truly striking and unique in its composition, performance and presentation is rare but, as Yamantaka // Sonic Titan proves on its third album Dirt, not impossible. This time out, the Canadian Noh-Wave behemoths offer listeners their first great breakthrough document of both sound and style; over the course of ten cuts, the group intertwines elements of progressive rock and metal musics with the spirit of Japanese anime culture, but also strings its own unique strand of pop at its core.
The results are simultaneously unique and anthemic, but also (and this is the most surprising bit) universally accessible; even if a listener isn’t into one particular aspect of Dirt, the other sounds employed can converge in a perfectly charmed way to make that one thing easy to overlook when faced with all the others.
After opening bombastically with some explosive sonic histrionics and some vocals calls akin to the sound of a Cerberus howling through “Karonhiake,” Dirt immediately locks down tightly into the perfectly entitled “Someplace” and begins a progression which sees listeners’ eyes regularly widening with equal amounts of disbelief and appreciation. There, singer Joanna Delos Reyes takes the mic and offers a pitch-perfect and beautiful vocal counterpoint to the sonic backdrop which builds from a sweet and warm arpeggiated rhythm figure to an unbelievable, meticulously executed and metallic (with, yes, some obvious prog inflections included prominently) pinnacle.
Even at this first cut, listeners will already feel their their eyes begin to widen as the discipline required to keep this performance as tight as it is is apparent, yet the band doesn’t hold back or pull a single punch either. Listeners will find themselves amazed at how flawlessly the early playing of Dirt is as the power and precision of “Someplace” just spontaneously evaporate at the song’s close, leaving a full two seconds grace for the band to collect itself and for listeners to blink and simply stand amazed thereafter.
Following the two-second collection period at the end of “Someplace,” Yamantaka // Sonic Titan drop effortlessly into a face-melting blast of perfectly measured progressive rock at the opening of “Dark Waters.” There, the band straddles the lines between ‘anthemic’ and ‘astounding’ in much the same way Judas Priest and King Crimson used to do in their finest moments, but without sounding like either of those bands in the slightest. Rather, the song charges forth like a beast with Ange Loft riding and lyricist/songwriter Alaska B. spurring it on, masterfully.
Guitarist Hiroki Tanaka and bassist Brandon Lim follow the charge set by Loft beautifully, adding fantastic and furious colors to the song which make it both driving and urgent and, when color gets added by Brendan Swanson’s keyboards and horns begin to creep in too, the results feel positively orchestral instead of just coming off as busy. No matter how often one listens to the opening charge presented here, the blitzkrieg nature of it never fades; the perfectly refined aesthetics and presentation here are absolutely dazzling.
After “Dark Waters,” the A-side of Dirt keeps its energy up marvellously and the band continually adds new elements to further enrich its sound. First, “Yandere” features a tandem vocal performance from Loft and Joanna Delos Reyes which makes for a thoroughly surreal aural experience, and both that song and its successor “Decay” offer some sparkling synth sounds to the mix in order to introduce a bit of a celestial sensation to the proceedings (which is particularly complimentary to the more shred-centered attack of “Yandere”), and the side closes with a more urban-flavored and surreal exposition in the form of “Beast.”
Now, those who have yet to hear “Beast” need to understand how perfect the song is to end the side of a vinyl record. With the clanging, chiming Asian percussion that opens the song, listeners who were introduced to Yamantaka // Sonic Titan specifically by Dirt will have their interest piqued and will once again find themselves listening very closely for what “Beast” may bring, and what they’ll find is remarkable. The song’s introduction adds a grandeur to it that listeners will actually be able to feel when the chord progression begins to change and, when the guitar and bass enter the equation, the excitement instantly escalates and sets pulses racing.
The same is true when the keyboards enter the mix and, when the gong sounds to close the song, it is then that listeners will be reminded to breathe; the way “Beast” develops is absolutely lush and epic, and it might actually be after listeners play through it a few times that they realize the song does not feature a lengthy lyric sheet at all. It’s simply phenomenal and that it’s largely wordless just sort of fits the spirit of the songs which preceded it; completely unlike anything else in pop, but ravishingly exciting to pop and rock listeners too.
As listeners flip the album over in hopes of hearing the energy levels which were set by Dirt‘s A-side remain at the same level, they’ll find that there is indeed no dip at all as “Hungry Ghost” opens the side. There, after a dreamy two-minute introduction, Y//ST takes a page from Black Sabbath and just ravishes listeners with heavy, overdriven power chords, thick bass and dense drums. Shades of menace and danger which touch every tone in the song and, when it reaches its breakdown at the two-and-a-half-minute mark, those listening will actually be able to feel their eyes lower to a penetrating glare – the movement dark, dangerous and feels completely genuine.
After that, the album’s title track helps to lighten the proceedings up ever so slightly but doesn’t lose the obviously aggressive undertones presented by “Hungry Ghost,” and then “Tawine” shifts gears and lurches/stomps menacingly, as well as featuring the cleanest vocal performance on the album (where Delos Reyes invites listeners to come along with her, if they dare) before “Out Of Time” picks up speed again to get listeners good and worried once more to close the album.
There, as Loft and Delos Reyes get truly nihilistic as they hand the mic back and forth, they also contrast the subject matter with the most technically nimble and impressive vocal performance on the whole album. That – plus both some truly awesome guitar and keyboard solos – makes “Out Of Time” the perfect note on which to end the album, and listeners will find they’ve been left glowing by the experience as the needle lifts when the needle lifts; it’s absolutely spectacular.
Standing back from the vinyl pressing of Dirt, yes, those who run front-to-back with the album will know that they’ve just experienced a rare and remarkable thing thanks to the music alone – but the vinyl takes it a bit further too. Limited to a pressing of just 500 copies on white vinyl, Dirt is as visually striking as it is sonically incredible and feels like a treasure when one has it in hand. Those who want to share in that sensation should act fast, get to Paper Bag Records’ website and order their copy now – because with music like this, the odds of copies of this vinyl waiting to get collected are simply non-existent.
(Paper Bag Records)
The first pressing of Dirt will be limited to 500 copies, pressed on white vinyl, and will be released on March 23, 2018. Pre-order it here, directly from Paper Bag Records: shop.paperbagrecords.com/products/dirt.