Album Review: Yamantaka//Sonic Titan—”UZU”

By James Li

Some bands love to invent genres for themselves. Maybe it’s a way for them to escape being categorized by critics and define their sound on their own terms. For example, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan from Montreal label themselves as “noh-wave.” It’s a succinct label that describes the musical collective’s East-meets-West approach well. The collective’s frontwomen, drummer Alaska B and singer Ruby Kato Attwood, cite a diverse range of influences on their musical and visual aesthetic. The band draws from progressive rock, psychedelica, doom metal, and the band members’ Chinese, Japanese, and First Nations heritage for inspiration.

Uzu album artwork

Uzu album artwork

True to prog rock tradition, Uzu is a rock opera. The album title means “whirlpool” in Japanese, and the album’s narrative centers on Mazu, the Chinese goddess of the sea, but it also weaves in imagery from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shintoism, and the Chinese classical novel, Journey to the West. Uzu’s sequencing is fluid and artful, as the tracks blend seamlessly into each other and alternate between soft piano-driven numbers and loud metallic anthems. Take the album’s opener, “Atalanta,” which begins with Attwood’s voice and spare piano chords as accompaniment before it segues into the massive, fuzzed-out “Whalesong,” or the epic two-part suite “Seasickness.”

The band reminds us often that they have the chops to be able to blend disparate genres effortlessly. Alaska B is a versatile and resourceful drummer, and her skills are best displayed on “Bring Me the Hand of Bloody Benzaiten,” which incorporates Eastern percussion techniques such as taiko and gamelan. Ruby Kato Attwood’s expressive and idiosyncratic vocal range, which goes anywhere from a wail to a whisper, is reminiscent of Dagmar Krause of Art Bears, one of the all-time greatest female prog rock singers.

Yamantaka // Sonic Titan certainly do not lack ambition, considering how far and wide they search for musical inspiration. Sometimes it pays off very well, like when the band starts off “One,” the album’s most straightforward rocker, with a soaring Iroquois chant performed by Mohawk tribe members. Sometimes this ambition does not pay off, like when they include a rap-metal breakdown on “Hall of Mirrors,” which sounds like Dream Theater at their very worst. Other tracks, like “Lamia,” work well as pieces in a rock opera but are not very memorable individually. Clearly, Uzu has a few missteps here and there, but for something so massive and ambitious, it is very cohesive.

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