New York-based quartet Vaura move among a constellation of artists and bands bent on interrogating the music, if not the entire zeitgeist, of the Eighties. If vaporwave scrapes together the pop ephemera of that decade to construct pleasurable, if not throwaway YouTube mixes, these groups take a different approach. Vaura, along with others such as Kayo Dot, Stern and Psalm Zero, combine the sounds of New Wave and postpunk with their members’ backgrounds in metal and the avant-garde to create a powerful and challenging synthesis. The quartet, consisting of Azure Swan‘s Josh Strawn on guitar, vocals and synths; Toby Driver of Kayo Dot and Stern on bass; Kevin Hufnagel of Gorguts and Dysrhythmia on guitar; and Charlie Schmid of Tombs on drums, is a veritable who’s who of this forward-leaning scene.
Vaura are not a new group, but six years have passed since their last full-length, 2013’s The Missing, and their approach has changed somewhat in the intervening years. While the Eighties influences certainly proved to be an important touchstone on that album, a black metal influence was also present, perhaps most evident in the blast beat on the album-opening title track. And while I would still consider Vaura at least metal-adjacent, Sables eschews any direct metal influence. There is a seriousness of purpose that might give away the group’s roots, but the gravity of the music is achieved without any traditional heavy metal gestures.
Sables begins with “Espionage,” a song that owes as much to Gentlemen Take Polaroids-era Japan as to any metal album. The sound is brooding and sensual, walking a fine line between art and pop. The drums and bass lock together in a danceable, even deceptively complex groove. Hufnagel’s guitar alternates between a minimal bit of funk and an arpeggiated riff, yet comes alive in several solo breaks scattered throughout the song. Here, he displays ample restraint considering the technical metal acumen he’s displayed in other projects. Instead, he opts for melodic yet slippery guitar fragments, owing a debt to King Crimson mastermind Robert Fripp at his moodiest.
This is followed by “Zwischen,” a song that reveals Vaura’s more progressive and experimental side. The track remains catchy despite its ominous angularity. The guitar and synths bounce off one another, sparring between complementary and clashing harmonies. Perhaps most perplexing is the constantly skittering drumwork. If this is in a 4/4 time signature, Schmid does a good job of hiding it. And Hufnagel manages to bring in more of that atmospheric guitar work. “Zwischen” proves that Vaura is always catchy, sometimes despite themselves.
“The Lightless Ones” follows, and the internal logic of the album begins to reveal itself. The more immediate numbers alternate with the more subdued yet challenging songs, although every song seems to hold nuggets of both melody and complexity in equal measures.
Driver’s excellent bass work also reveals itself as the album progresses. While Hufnagel’s guitar work is powerful and atmospheric, and Schmid’s drumming is foundational to each song, the bass moves nimbly underneath with subtle but essential counterpoint, tying each song’s disparate pieces together. Driver’s work on “No Guardians” is particularly impressive; he lays down a relentless yet oddly-syncopated bass line that elevates the song’s unique character.
The quality of each song is consistent throughout. The closing pair of tracks, “Basilisk (The Infinite Corpse)” and “Sables,” present a powerful one-two punch that effectively encapsulate the album. “Basilisk” deftly maneuvers through several different parts. At times it behaves like a dark postpunk anthem, while in other moments the dynamic is subdued and moments of drone and space threaten to dissolve into nothingness. The title track also experiments with loud-soft dynamics but functions more traditionally, with Vaura patiently building each verse slowly until climaxing with the song’s chorus. After the second refrain, the drums dive headlong toward the end of the song until finally they drop out, leaving the guitar to give just a few plaintive strums before finding its own silence.
Vaura and their comrades seem to bring about an important revelation regarding the trajectory of popular music and perhaps culture at large. The Eighties brought us so many new sounds, a time that didn’t give birth to hip-hop or electronic music but did see those genres truly come into their own. It is also when we saw Blade Runner for the first time, saw the release of William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, and saw personal computers and video games enter the mainstream. Musically, the decade seemed to incorporate new sounds daily, leaving one to wonder if grunge was the last dying breath of the rock ‘n’ roll of old. There’s something in the sound of Sables that is both nostalgic yet deeply entwined in some sort of future. Maybe the future started back then, and for better or worse, we’ve been living out those visions ever since.