In Tibetan Buddhist beliefs, beyul are sacred hidden valleys, lands of paradise intended as places of refuge from “difficult circumstances in the world.” Their name also provides the title for the sixth album from Chicago avant-metal quartet Yakuza, a record that could be the soundtrack to one’s journey of hardships to seek the peace and tranquility promised within. Certainly there’s no peace within the music itself, as the foursome—Matt McClelland on guitar, Ivan Cruz on bass, James Staffel on percussion and frontman Bruce Lamont on vocals and saxophone (and other woodwinds)—whip up a storm of tribulations over its 39 minutes.
Yakuza are the product of a fertile Chicago music scene that observes no taboos when it comes to genre-bending—the shtick in their case being metal crossed with free jazz, across a decade’s worth of varying results. They have sounded doomier before, on 2007’s Transmutations, and more frantic on their earlier material (2002’s Way of the Dead). And their nods to jazz and world music have been more conspicuous, perhaps in contrast to their heavier tracks, where Lamont was more prone to screaming his vocals. It’s the same kind of oil-and-water separation you can hear in, say, Blind Idiot God, who mostly kept the rock out of their dub and vice versa.
But 2010’s Of Seismic Consequence—their debut for Canadian avant-metal label Profound Lore—marked a transition for the band, with Lamont singing more cleanly than not, and the compositions converging in their substance, if not in tone. Beyul (buy it from Amazon) continues this trend, kicking off with “Oil and Water,” an ironic title considering Yakuza‘s evolution towards a more emulsified sound. The intro comes in a flurry of tribal noise, sax and guitar blending into a fluttering drone not unlike an Indian or Middle Eastern woodwind. Then comes the metal, that full-on muscular six-string chug, the riffage up close and crunchy one minute, open and breezy the next, sounding not unlike New York progressive thrashers Wetnurse—aside from Lamont’s clean crooning, which might threaten to take things into classic metal territory in any other context, but in this situation the disparity is strangely fitting.
“On the Last Day” varies up the pace with a more languid, airy space conjured between short bursts of blistering thrash. Lamont employs his reeds as one texture among the multitude, while also showing awareness of his voice as an instrument. Then comes the eight-and-a-half-minute “Man is Machine,” which shape-shifts between sax-led crescendos (harmonized by guest sidemen Dave Rempis and Mars Williams) and dissonant passages of Swans-like apocalyptic noise and ghostly whispers, punctuated by blurts of free skronk, but keeps the mood predominantly metallic.
“Fire Temple and Beyond,” the longest track of the set at almost 10 minutes, kicks off the second half with some atmospheric post-metal drift, textured with hints of cello in the mix (courtesy of Poi Dog Pondering associate Alison Chesley), before shifting gears with a flourish in the prog-metal middle section. The thunderous, quick-fire “Mouth of the Lion” comes as surprise after that, coiled tight as a spring where the previous track was about space and texture. Then they throw another curveball on the 86-second sprint “Species,” which brims with amphetamine-doped hardcore energy and features Lamont screaming into a telephone mic like a pissed-off Chris Cornell.
The closing “Lotus Array” sees the band stretch out again, in tune with the album’s pattern of contraction and release. Yet even within this song’s six-and-a-half minutes the sound twists and pulls and flexes like a muscle—and a well defined one at that. It’s the last word of a strong statement from a band who’ve grown more comfortable and confident in their confounding nature.
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