Review: Yakuza ‘Sutra’

As someone who has read (and written) a lot of column inches about heavy music, one of the phrases that I have constantly struggled with is the term ‘thinking person’s heavy metal band’. Yes, there has been some egregiously dumb shit perpetrated in the name of this genre, but it has always been an avenue that has sought to address political and social issues from all ends of the spectrum, often with dazzling musical ability.

Yakuza 'Sutra' Artwork
Yakuza ‘Sutra’ Artwork

The notion of this phrase very much seems orientated with people from ‘outside’ to excuse liking something within it. Through no fault of their own, Chicago’s genre-bending ‘heavy hybridizers’ Yakuza frequently get tagged with this epithet and lauded by the likes of Pitchfork for seemingly taking a hammer to conventions, tearing down structures and rebuilding something new, something ‘other.’

The fact is that sonic dissidence has always been at the root of any musical evolution and the Second City-based natives have built a career out of embracing the chaos of fusing a range of styles like jazz, avant-garde, and art rock onto doom and sludge to push the boundaries of heavy music to redefine the limitations of what they create.

Having been languishing in something of a hiatus following their (even by their standards) eclectic and experimental Beyul album in 2012, the band began a resurgence in 2018 following the recruitment of bassist Jerome Marshall and began the songwriting process which continued through the pandemic as, in their own words, they ‘like to take their time’.

The resulting ten-track Sutra continues Yakuza’s mission to redefine the listener’s understanding of musical exploration and expression possibilities. On the surface, the band’s seventh album isn’t the most intimidating stylistically they have produced in terms of sonic acrobatics, but it never-the-less bristles with subversion.

As the reverb gives way to a stabbing but hypnotic guitar line, the band begins with a shimmering, dreamy intro to 2is1. Bruce Lamont’s voice, never the most polished, remains wracked with emotion and they dance on the line between anguished beauty and a discordant menace. Harder edges creep in over the almost monk-like chants, glancing off with angular chugs and seeming flashes fleetingly by laying the foundations for what is to come.

Alice has no such subtleties or pretensions as it crashes in with a big earth-shaking sludgy riff and effect-drenched vocals with churning time changes that never settle for long and call back to prime ‘90s era alt noise-rock.

As ever, Yakuza bounce between dreamy melody and big, loose grooves with the band members (James Staffel hammering the drums, Matt McClelland riffing off Lamont, and Marshall grinding out the rhythm cycles) acrobatically circling each other building layers of sound, whether it is jangling discordant passages or collapsing into psychedelic interludes.

inventive melting pot of explorative metal…

Echoes From The Sky starts with a catchy, almost punk-flavoured off-kilter number that manages to be both catchy and yet infused with moments of crushing doom-like walls of sound. It also heralds the first appearance of Lamont’s saxophone that ushers in the celebrated jazz elements, making their output sit firmly in the post-metal category. Over frenetic drumming, the noodling sound of the reed instrument lends a slight madness to the clashing maelstrom and nags at you in an almost alien, discordant manner.

The rich, smokey tones of Embers bristle with a downbeat doom atmosphere as Lamont intones the sinister lyrics with sombre vocals providing a moment of introspective, quiet focus. Over the building tension, the vocals take the forefront and are the star of the piece as the singer strains with impassioned delivery while building to a harder-edged hammering.

Keeping with the dark, moody tones and drifting feeling, Capricorn Rising marches and builds in progression towards its heavyweight and frenzied climax. Creatively moving from the more straightforward slow-paced stomp to a crazed march, they fully embrace the chaos with the none more metal Burn Before Reading which rages and stomps like the bastard child of prime era Mastodon trading blows with The Dillinger Escape Plan before dissolving into the soulful, soothing sax lead beauty they can simply summon at will.

In comparison Walking God starts light and playful, built around a delirious main vocal hook, the rhythm dictated by the message of the lyrics, the swirling sounds mutating as they tighten their grip. They refuse to relinquish with the choppy grooves of Into Forever which lurches and snarls over the additional instrumentation and early Neurosis style hardcore.

Psychic Malaise defies its title as it rages and snakes between tempos, Lamont’s vocals showing flashes of Ozzy, howls of guttural spite, doom droning and visceral shouts as the band throw more twists and turns than an Oceans Eleven heist movie.

Concluding with the robust and lush overtones and reverberating brass of Never The Less, Yakuza balance tribal pounding, and pensive lead work as they carve out the longest track on Sutra in a reflective manner, having given the listener just under an hour of new music that will probably take multiple repeats to truly digest the scope of everything they have captured.

As with all great pieces of music from the band, their latest offering won’t reveal all its subtle complexities straight away as at times, the hidden gems on the album can catch you unawares when you aren’t paying attention. You catch a series of notes, or bludgeoning riff, that disappear as fast as it came and seem almost inconsequential, but on the next listen, you’ll find yourself waiting in anticipation for it, revealing the depth of textures it adds, which is what fans of the band have come to expect by now and thankfully they deliver time and time again.

Sutra shows the band adding some new tricks, or at least expanding on their already bountiful arsenal of approaches and tracks like Alice and Psychic Malaise in particular, stand out as examples of this continuingly inventive melting pot of explorative metal.

Gives you something to think about…

Label: Svart Records
Band Links: Facebook | Bandcamp | Instagram

Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden