There is a profound difference between music that is ahead of its time and music that understands its time. Striking when the moment is right, solidifying growing trends into something iconic, that’s the stuff that breeds success in the near term — providing listeners with a sound they’ve only just realized they want. Breaking ground, on the other hand, can breed future renown, but it often results in present poverty.
Pet Sounds may be the best known Beach Boys record nowadays, but it’s complex arrangements and unbridled emotions resulted in some of the outfit’s lowest sales figures. More to the point here is the example of Sleep. 2003’s Dopesmoker — the group’s dense and dominating farewell odyssey, today seen as one of the most immersive intersections of doom metal and stoner rock — was so reviled by Sleep’s label that they refused to put it out. Indeed, being ahead of your time in no way guarantees success.
This reality is well understood by Kylesa. For more than a decade, the Savannah, Ga., outfit has bred sinewy sludge with meandering psychedelics, drug-addled trances and increasingly catchy hooks. These ideas have been met with both praise and resistance, marking Kylesa as a band beloved by many but misunderstood by others.
“I don’t think it’s cocky to say that we’ve always been a step ahead of what the trends have been in heavy music,” offers singer and guitarist Laura Pleasants. “That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. Timing is everything. Even if you’re ahead, it’s still not right at the right time. For us to stay relevant to ourselves and to the music climate in general, we have to progress, but in a way that still suits us as a band, as Kylesa, as this band that’s formed a sound and image over the years.”
Pleasants and fellow singer and ax slinger Phillip Cope are Kylesa’s creative center and its only consistent members since the group formed in 2001. In that time, they have utilized blunt-force heft — bolstered by the 2006 switch to a double-drummer configuration — as the springboard for increasingly bold stylistic choices.
Their penchant for unexpected sounds has never been more pronounced than it is on Ultraviolet, Kylesa’s dark and deceptively fetching new album. It’s the group’s sixth proper LP, and it’s the first that truly suits its time.
Opener “Exhale” grafts sludge riffs onto some of the group’s catchiest grooves, offering eerie psych interludes as welcome grace notes. As with recent efforts by Baroness and ASG, it refashions metal intensity as the fuel for accessible modern rock, proving that such a pursuit isn’t always a creative quagmire. “What Does It Take” finds the typically plodding outfit surging with hardcore momentum, dark wave-inspired synthesizers lending sleek menace to churning guitars and an irresistible hook. All told, Ultraviolet is a jumble of trending sounds, skillfully organized into 12 direct and distinct assaults. The result is Kylesa’s most approachable work to date.
“It’s a culmination of things,” Pleasants explains. “We had a lot more time between records, and we just took our time with it. It just felt right. We’ve always been a band that just do what we felt was right at the time, and this music that we wrote for this record felt right. There’s no specific rhyme or reason or agenda. It’s just what we felt like we wanted to do at the time.”
These new sounds, while compelling, wouldn’t be nearly so captivating were it not for the singers’ emotional immediacy. Every line on Ultraviolet feels like it was ripped straight from still-reeling hearts. Pleasants — who coos as often as she shrieks — absolutely scorches the album, infecting her words with gnawing bleakness. Her passion is understandable. In the leadup to Ultraviolet, she lost both her mother and her grandmother, the two most important women in her life. At the same time, Cope was dealing with relationship issues of his own. The album was their release.
“It was extremely intimate and certainly the hardest record I’ve had to write, at least emotionally,” Pleasants says. “Anger is one thing, but the feeling of emptiness, of loss, is a whole different emotion. We just wanted to write something that was emotive and beautiful but also heavy and dark, just a bunch of different feelings at once.”
Rooted in honest emotions and sounds that have never been more relevant, Ultraviolet sits just a half step ahead of heavy music’s trending styles, pushing them forward without alienating itself from what’s popular. Ever formidable, Kylesa has finally found the here and now. Watch out.