This past weekend, Savannah sludge savants Kylesa announced they were going on an indefinite hiatus after their 15 year continuous run as a band. Prolific in their output, decidedly non-static in their style, more than just being the end of the band (for now, at least), it symbolizes an era of metal that has had its heyday and is on its way out. Now, I’m not old enough to be nostalgic for the early 2000’s metal scene yet – nor do I like to pretend I am – but, admittedly, Kylesa was one of the last remnants of the now-legendary sludge movements birthed in the late 90’s and early new millennium. Sure, Baroness and Mastodon are still around, but the years haven’t seen either of them dabbling in the same style they used to; both of those groups, arguably the two biggest names to come out of the now-defunct movement, have moved on to other, softer pursuits. Point being, as one of the final stalwarts of 2000’s sludge, seeing them take a hiatus means seeing one of the brightest lights of post-2000 metal suddenly turn off without warning, and if it’s not felt now, within the next couple of years, their absence is going to be very, very painful.
Although their first LP, the self-titled Kylesa, came out in 2002, it wasn’t until their sophomore followup in 2005 that they hit the stride that would make them a phenomenon in the world of sludge metal. That record, To Walk A Middle Course, saw them moving from the crusty and raw sound of guitarist Phillip Cope’s previous band, Damad, to a more metal-oriented vibe that still managed to incorporate a fair amount of outside influences into something unique, compelling, and engaging. Fusing the faster, frantic nature of older sludge purveyors with the genre’s newer doom inclinations into a style that walked, ran and crawled at different points, and mixing in some of Cope’s crusty background along with moments of psychedelic rock and quiet ambience, from Middle Course forward, the band has been nothing if not unique. The closest descriptor to their older style is probably “psychedelic doom-sludge,” but even this misses the mark by not drawing requisite attention to their punk background or the sheer depths of otherworldly tension they manage to invoke with their psychedelia-laced slow jams.
Kylesa has always been averse to ever making the same record twice: following To Walk A Middle Course with Time Will Fuse Its Worth, a more straightforward take on their sludge side that saw them exploring more fuzzy guitar tones and interplay between the dual guitar attack of Laura Pleasants and Cope, they successfully proved that they were more than a one-trick pony condemned to reside in the shadow of the greats. From there, they put out what’s considered their absolute masterpiece as a group: 2009’s Static Tensions saw the group breaking new ground by bringing more of their older, spacey, psychedelic vibes together with the energetic sludge attack of Time Will Fuse for something that was unlike anything else around at the time (and still, pretty much in its own category today – with the exception of other Kylesa albums). Brilliantly written and flawlessly executed, Static Tensions still stands out as one of the greatest sludge metal albums of the mid-to-late 2000’s, a time when many of the other bands Kylesa had risen through the ranks of were either beginning to wind down or change styles.
However, it didn’t stop there. The very next year, Kylesa followed up Static Tensions with Spiral Shadow, a further progression of their sound into an entirely different – albeit still fantastic – territory. Moving towards a verse-chorus-verse structure and simplified songwriting, the band focused mainly on creating memorable melodies and noteworthy hooks. This approach led to both some of their catchiest tracks – anybody who’s heard it can recognize the ‘main riff’ of “Tired Climb” – and their most emotionally intense moments, it was triumphant in a way totally separate from any of their previous records, yet successful nonetheless. This new decade brought on a new Kylesa, one more concerned with moving away from the aggression that defined their previous releases into a more experimental space: the band found more and more places for theremins and other unconventional instruments, using them to create thin, warbling soundscapes that supplemented their already-atypical approach, which featured two drummers, two guitarists, both of which shared the vocal limelight as well, and a bassist, an unusual quintet of musicians becoming even stranger as they realized they’d reached the zenith of what they could do by means of speed and the typical sludge fare. From there, they put out 2013’s Ultraviolet, which was more stripped back and atmospheric, even shoegaze-influenced at times, and Exhausting Fire, which would come to be their final release in this period for the band (and potentially ever). Exhausting Fire saw the continuation of the shoegaze elements becoming more prominent in their sound, and showed that Kylesa had completed the transformation on the stoner spectrum from sludge to doom metal. Although they retained the same elements that brought them success on Time Will Fuse Its Worth and Static Tensions, they’d softened up since with experience and reared back the aggression in favor of a more contemplative and methodical approach to their sound.
Although they’re gone for now (and maybe forever, but at heart I’m an optimist), Kylesa has left us with one of the most impressive and varied legacies in modern metal. From crusty sludge to shoegazy doom rock, every album of theirs was a milestone in their collective arc as a transforming, maturing group of musicians who has explored a staggeringly diverse sound over the past decade and a half. If there’s one consolation us Kylesa fans can have, it’s that they want us to look forward to the future, to the upcoming waves of bands who will inevitably be inspired by these bastions of a sound largely abandoned. I’d like to invoke a lyric of theirs in this moment as a piece of advice to other fans of the band: “keep moving, don’t look back.” Let’s not languish over the ended career of such visionaries, let’s look forward to what the future brings from the minds behind this amazing group. Listening to their albums is cathartic now, an act of remembrance in addition to a sonic reverie. Enjoy what they brought to the table, but let’s not fixate on what could have been if they hadn’t taken this hiatus. Keep moving. Don’t look back.