In a recent interview, Yamantaka//Sonic Titan’s Alaska B. noted that their entry point to making music is confusion. No ideas are off limits, no references too obscure and in the clarification of this confusion come the ideas for songs. In that same interview, Alaska B. notes that listeners are often wrong when they try to figure out where ideas may have come from. It is hard to imagine any of the ideas on UZU are really that difficult to decipher, but we will give them the benefit of the doubt: perhaps there are people out there who have never heard an Iroquois chant, Japanese drums or “Close to the Edge.” Kids these days, or something.
Yamantaka//Sonic Titan broke big with their 2011 debut, YT//ST, with heaps of critical praise for both their masterful, unique debut record and their innovative live show. YT//ST landed a spot on the 2012 Polaris shortlist and then in the pockets of funding-bloated Paper Bag Records who reissued the LP. Clearly the oddball on the 2012 shortlist against mainstream choices like Drake, Feist and Japandroids, there was good money riding on Yamantaka//Sonic Titan to take the prize (Feist’s forgettable Metals won instead).
The good news for fans of YT//ST is that UZU is an almost seamless continuation of their “noh-wave” sound, their patented blend of prog, black metal, Iroquois social songs, Chinese opera, Krautrock and whatever else fits. UZU mines similar territory, taking what was often an unwieldy (and exciting) collection of ideas and makes them seem a lot less weird and a little more palatable. YT//ST was a sharp left turn for anything coming out of the fertile Canadian underground in 2011, so it seems weird to call UZU a record that plays it safe. Compare UZU to anything else coming out today and it is still way out there. But, compared to their debut, it feels like familiar territory.
The sonic boundaries of UZU are clearly defined from the start and the album rides a highly compressed wash for almost the entire record. UZU lacks the sense of carefree adventure their debut had in spades. So many of these fantastic-on-paper ideas fail to connect, softening their overall impact on the listener. For an album about “love and hate,” UZU never really evokes the emotional response it is aiming for outside of a few key moments, such as the fantastic “Seasickness Pt. 1,” a song that stands out not only because it is a calm in the middle of a storm, but because the idea is executed almost perfectly.
There are left turns and surprises to be found in the corners of UZU, such as the traditional Japanese drums of “Bring Me The Hand of Bloody Benzaiten” morphing into “One,” a song that features an Iroquois chant stuffed inside a Krautrock framework. There is an audacity and playfulness to this kind of sonic stew-making for which Yamantaka//Sonic Titan is well known and it is too bad that the first half of the record isn’t nearly as good as its second half.
Following up YT//ST would be a daunting task for any band and UZU is mostly successful in rising to the occasion. The press release for UZU says that the record is “important for demonstrating how disparate cultural perspectives can merge into something entirely new while retaining their individual sovereign character,” which is true: Yamantaka//Sonic Titan remain a vital creative force and it is great that records like this are being made. But all the same, it is hard to recommend UZU. If confusion is the entry point for the band, it may in fact be the exit point for most listeners.
By Paul Lawton