Catharsis has always been essential to Kylesa. No matter how far they pull you into the muddy, pitch black depths of a sludge metal swamp—and things get pretty dark on their newest album, Ultraviolet—there’s always a moment when a hand appears and they pull you to the surface. Despite the intimidating cover art—seriously, look at those bugs—this is not a band that’s going to put a curse on you and leave you for dead. This emphasis on release over tension, on immediacy over ambiance, on craft over mood often gets the band labeled as a pop group, or at the very least, as a metal group that’s not afraid to dabble in big hooks. But that’s not exactly an accurate description: These are still adventurous, heavy songs. They sound like pop songs because they have the same visceral pleasure and comfort that comes from being in the hands of skilled professionals.
Phillip Cope and Laura Pleasants, the engines powering the Savannah, Georgia metal group, have earned the right to be considered old pros. Through over 10 years, six full-lengths, several EP’s and singles, numerous line-up changes and even a rarities compilation from last year, the pair has endured, all the while making music about what a pain in the ass it is to endure. 2010′s excellent Spiral Shadow kicked off with a song called “Tired Climb.” Ultraviolet opens with a ferocious snarl of a punk assault titled “Exhale.” It’s the sound of people making it to the top of the mountain, taking a breather and reflecting on what they lost on the journey.
Ultraviolet is being billed as the group’s “dark” album, as if the band’s catalog wasn’t already filled with psychologically fraught moments of despair and anguish. Luckily, the darkness is most evident in the themes and language of the record, not necessarily in the overall sound or the songwriting. After the opening bruiser, the album transitions to a more measured, studied churn on “Unspoken,” which trades in Cope’s impassioned screams for Pleasants’ earthbound reflections. The two often trade off lines on the album, giving it a teetering, destabilized quality, but Pleasants emerges as the the star of the record. She has an almost Chan Marshall-ish vulnerability at times coupled with J Mascis’ skewed stoner cadence, which lets her adapt to the guitar maelstrom at hand, whether its the skidding tire screeches of “Grounded” or the melancholy desert rock of “Steady Breakdown.”
That’s not to say Cope doesn’t have moments of triumph as well. “Low Tide,” with its mid-tempo beat, ghostly backing vocals and slurred chorus, could work on a number of lumbering, big-hearted indie rock albums of the last few years—think Wu Lyf or Wolf Parade. That they follow it up with some of the album’s most ruthless, pyrotechnic-filled guitar theatrics (“Vulture’s Landing”), and its most freewheeling psych-rock autopsy (“Quicksand”) speaks to the band’s unfussy, subtle eclecticism. There are electronic rumbles and tremors throughout the record—hints of goth and new wave bubble up in the mix like leering poltergeists—but they’re never invasive.
The band’s unrelenting precision can make Ultraviolet feel a little unambitious at times. After last summer gave us Baroness’s epic and genre-defying wrecking ball of a double album, Yellow And Green, it’s tempting to imagine a more expansive, uncoiled version of this record. If there’s something holding the album back, it’s that the band is almost too efficient and unforgiving in its editorial choices. At under 39 minutes, it’s the band’s shortest full-length since its self-titled debut, and certain songs like “What Does It Take” sound underdeveloped. At this point Kylesa is a group dedicated to refinement, not reinvention.