It’s really no secret that metal is slowly but surely starting to experiment more with the softer side of sounds. When combined with ‘traditional metal’ parts, the dynamics become more extreme; bands like Deafheaven and Neurosis switch between crushingly heavy metal segments and soft, lilting ambience with the drop of a hat. It adds quite a lot to both parts when done properly: the more a band goes towards either side of the spectrum, the more jarring and off-kilter it becomes when they switch between the two. Take, for example, ISIS’s landmark post-sludge album, Panopticon: on it, the power in the interplay between the ambient, washed-out parts and the all-consuming sludge grooves makes the record able to hit twice as hard with each segment of the music.
The interplay between typically ‘metal’ aggression and quieter, more effects-driven parts has become a key part of the sludge and doom subgenres specifically, and it’s this dynamic that psychedelic stalwarts Kylesa play with constantly. On their newest release, Exhausting Fire, it’s this tonal shift back and forth that makes the record a joy to listen to: the back-and-forth conversation between catchy, smooth doom riffing and droned-out, psychedelic shoegazey rock elevates the entire album to truly be more than the sum of its parts.
Aurally, Exhausting Fire feels like an evening spent driving through the desert (an experience that this reviewer is all too familiar with). The spacey softness brings to mind images of dusty roads bathed in reddish-purple sunset, and the psychedelia perfectly reflects the way the sun shines off of the clouds into kaleidoscopic fragments of golden light. Then, as the car turns onto the freeway, it speeds up, and so does the band, along with: the song turns from the slow, atmospheric shoegaze into a fast, thrumming doom metal riff, beating back your brain and forcing you to just take in the darkening environment that surrounds the vehicle. It’s a cycle that repeats and repeats through the album, but it works, because every segment feels tempered and well-thought-out. Of course, at some times it’s more on-point than others, but the level of quality across Exhausting Fire is extremely consistent, to the record’s advantage.
Technically, every performance feels tight and locked in: the syncopation between both drummers is pretty understated here, but the “double drummer” thing still has moments of ingenious synchronicity. The guitars and bass are on-point, going back and forth between the two worlds of this album’s design with exceptional fluidity. Of course, the vocals are phenomenal; the duet of Philip Cope and Laura Pleasants shines, as always, with his gnarled, raspy, distorted yell being the perfect foil to her creamy astral drawl. From an instrumental and vocal standpoint, this stands as one of the strongest records Kylesa has put out to date.
All this being said, this is most certainly a Kylesa record. Anybody who knows what they sound like won’t find anything particularly surprising on Exhausting Fire; a listener who doesn’t like them already won’t find much, if anything, to bring them around to this side of the camp on this album. Has the group stagnated? No, but they’ve certainly found their niche and carved it out, and that remains the same here.
Kylesa have steadily moved into a softer and softer territory, adding more shoegaze and psychedelia to their sound, and it’s here where the combination shines the brightest so far: the riffs are groovy, the dynamics stand out in the best way possible, and every member of the group is at peak performance. Exhausting Fire showcases a band doing what they already know how to do, but at their best (and most accessible) yet, and as such, it stands out as the new leader in an already very strong discography.