Artists maintain a special place in society. Most to all of us have that creative flame burning inside, but some take special care to cultivate that flame, embracing the grueling but thrilling accompanying work. Some of that work culminated in Azusa, a new collection of musicians whose debut full length album Heavy Yoke releases November 16 via Solid State Records in the U.S. (and in the European Union on Indie Recordings). The project emerged only in late 2018, but the musicians have been at work long before that — and it shows. Heavy Yoke‘s new face of dissonance and beauty proves unlike much if anything else, and feels incredibly extreme, to be blunt, in its own right. Extremity remains an ever-changing beast.
Bassist Liam Wilson is among those involved — you might know him as a face of the long-running dissonant group The Dillinger Escape Plan. That band phased out in 2017, and now he plays with Extol’s Christer Espevoll and David Husvik along with vocalist Eleni Zafiriadou, who’s been part of the markedly melodic project Sea + Air. There’s a contrast driven freshness built right into the band.
Azusa represents a continuation of each of the threads of artistic drive that the respective musicians ran on previously, which Wilson explains as intentional for him. He wants to keep his ambitious trajectory going.
“I recognize the music we write is complex on a few levels, but I guess that’s all relative or at least subjective,” Wilson says. “The drive for experimentation, for me at least, comes from simply always wanting to create a fusion of sounds and influences that I, as a fan of all different kinds of music, can’t find or haven’t been able to convey more clearly yet. I’m always consciously aiming to try and break new ground – however small that tectonic shift may be, aiming far outside my own comfort zone and conditioned norms in an effort to explore uncharted territory and chart it. That’s what I think the role of the artist in society is. I’m attempting to simultaneously destroy and create subgenres of music.”
Building Up The Drive
For Heavy Yoke, the band members worked to let themselves shine — however grueling that may prove. Sometimes, it’s pretty to get to know oneself — and sometimes, it’s ugly. Often it’s both simultaneously.
On a thematic level, the familiar tension of the rounds of relationships we’re all involved in during our day-to-day lives informed Heavy Yoke‘s direction. That tension worked alongside the musical drives to culminate in the fresh new work the band’s produced.
“The overarching theme for Heavy Yoke seems to be the metaphysical and emotional weight of relationships,” Wilson says. “We have to navigate ourselves through so many, as examples: your bandmates, lovers, friends, your idealized sense of self vs. your shadow-side, how we see ourselves vs. how others perceive you or perhaps your connection to a higher power. Lyrically, most of the songs on the album are inspired by the archetypal themes of good vs. evil, illusion vs. reality, the past vs. the present and how upbringing, memory, mysticism, belief and betrayal play into how we reconcile our interactions with these ‘others’ and what sort of connections we often find ourselves in, be it host/parasite, oppressor/oppressed etc.”
“These songs are written very deliberately, and the lyrics absolutely come from a very real place emotionally,” the bassist continues.
Although the band’s expansive take extends well beyond the lyrics, even just inherent in that aspect, they pack a ton. Simplicity and bluntness can be powerful.
Their lyrical and thematic expressions prove wrapped up with their musical journeys. Rather than camping out on a particular mood — dour or otherwise — Azusa push the listener forward, carrying them along with that drive to craft something new that Wilson talked about. His description of the work behind Heavy Yoke feels apparent in the music.
The tracks maintain some connective tissue to Wilson’s former work — and that of the other involved musicians — but at the same time, Heavy Yoke roars down a new path. Zafiriadou’s work itself represents a new direction for Wilson, he notes — it’s not as though The Dillinger Escape Plan had a female vocalist. Greg Puciato fronted that band — and he currently works on a synth-driven project The Black Queen.
Zafiriadou’s vocals contribute — at times — a gentleness to Azusa absent from Dillinger, a band known for its experimental dissonance and wild energy. At the same time, she presents an impressive range, keeping the music nimbly evolving as the listener makes their way through.
“When we make choices, sometimes it’s because the first drafts feel a bit ‘been there done that’ and when you’ve already done quite a bit, that narrows things down a lot and those choices become more significant,” Wilson posits. “The biggest example of that with Azusa was choosing to work with a female vocalist. That injected a lot of fresh energy into this project for me. That was a color I hadn’t really worked with in heavy music prior to this and although it was a conscious choice on our behalf, it also had a very organic and natural arc to it. I love the unknown.”
Processing The Inspiration At Hand
Zafiriadou hardly acts alone. The whole band sets off into that unknown together. Concurrent to her vocal work, the instrumentalists in Azusa seem incredibly conscious of and in control of what they’re doing. Wilson confirms as much, too, asserting: “Nothing was an afterthought — no icing of cakes here.”
He’s pretty thrilled with how the musicians were able to work together in the first place. An undertaking of such magnitude requires pieces to sit in place. Beautiful and mind-bending art doesn’t spring up out of thin air. The process of collecting even the most natural inspiration takes work.
“It takes a lot of trust and faith in the people you’re working with,” Wilson says of the artistic process he’s involved in. “I feel like we’re all each other’s biggest fans. We each have a lot of experiences to draw from, and pretty much all of those weren’t shared. We’re all coming from places that, regardless of how it seems from the outside, are truly more different than they are similar, but in the best ways.”
Still — Heavy Yoke proves that from the most dissonant of backgrounds, a brand new synthesis can emerge. A focus honed by years and years of musical involvement helped the band out majorly here, as does the basic knowledge that piles up during such a process too like that of the connective power of the internet.
“In a band setting, I really enjoy what develops when you bring together high-caliber minds and just let the muse lead the work. If the chemistry and communication are good, I think the experimentation is always happening naturally — but we’re usually so zoomed-in during the creative process that we don’t recognize it as such until it’s in the rearview.”
Taking The Listener For A Ride — The Sound Itself
They throw just about any preconceived notion one might have about Azusa’s sound into question. Rather than just tacking atmosphere onto a heavy music framework and running with it, the band blends familiarly heavy and gentler musical tones into their work, just as expressed through Zafiriadou’s vocals. Somehow — thrillingly — the wild mix works.
“We’re very aware of contrast,” Wilson says, “in allowing the double bass to roll under the least aggressive guitar parts, and how the most stereotypical ‘metal’ riff might end up with the most open and poetic ‘un-metal’ drum patterns. Eleni’s range gives us so many different ways to balance and counterbalance our sound. Everything is about tension and release, extended periods of dissonance leading to a harmonious resolution. I think we’re also very aware of keeping things streamlined, not throwing too many ideas into any one song, which allows us to write shorter songs that arrest the listener, instead of trying to cram too many ideas into a single track as if every part could just be spliced in anywhere.”
Rather than letting singularity rule, Heavy Yoke stands as a monument to the artistic drives that transcend any single one of us.
“Nothing flies until everyone is on board,” Wilson explains, “or at least willing to concede within a certain range for the sake of moving forward – which makes the process grueling at times, but rarely does everyone in a band truly have equal pull. Again, this comes back to respect and trust in your co-conspirators and faith in the greater energies flowing beneath our little canoe we’re paddling on this wild river.”
The special thing is — we’re in the canoe with them. At least, we can be upon pushing play on their work. That river isn’t going anywhere — so we ought to get to paddling.
Listen to “Interstellar Islands” — a single off Heavy Yoke — below.