Last week, a few of us at Heavy Blog geeked at the announcement of a new Lo-Pan record. It’s exciting news as we’ve been awaiting a follow up to 2017’s fantastic In Tensions, but this also jogged my memory, leading me to recall Jeff Martin (vocals) and Chris Thompson (guitar) of Lo-Pan’s work with Akula. It’s a group that didn’t seem to get a lot of attention at the time, so what better time to spout off about them than now? The Columbus quintet – rounded out by bassist Scott Hyatt (Bridesmaid), drummer Ronnie Miller (Struck By Lightning), and guitarist Sergei Parfenov (Ves) – released their self-titled EP in January of last year (?! Holy shit, time flies…). They’re a far cry from the sunny disposition of Lo-Pan’s stoner rock, but Martin’s infectious vocals conjure a similar uplifting swell amidst this murkier soundscape. Where Lo-Pan zig with an ardent passion for melody and hooks, Akula zag with wanderlusting post-metal – so even if the first isn’t your cup of tea, the latter may be right up your alley.
For me, the magic of Martin’s vocals is how his upper-register croons pair so nicely with the distortion of the guitars. It’s a simple beauty, like butter on toast. This contrast is highlighted again in this project, but this time we’re also treated to complementary pairings against the backdrop of post-rock tremolo cascades and vast and layered expanses. The tension-swelling build from the onset of “Force Me Open” is patient, duly enhancing the delicate nature of the guitars and Martin’s vocals as tom rolls pick things up before culminating in a definitively post-metal exclamation point. In this way, the snaking and rangy structures of Akula’s progressive songcraft also add a touch of drama as they meander – it seems like you never really know what Martin is going to do because it seems like he can really do anything. Structurally massive (nary a song below nine-minutes here), Martin has a lot of room to play and he takes advantage of it, flexing some gut-driven power here and there and of course belting out some huge, soaring notes and colorful flourishes. Basically, I think the charm is that it’s just refreshing to hear someone with rock ’n’ roll pipes in post-metal instead of the standard burly gutteral or instrumental approach.
Still, this thing is more than just post-metal with great melodic vocals. There’s a lot of interesting things happening instrumentally, too. Akula’s style is complex and emotive with wily rhythms and adventurous leads. Throughout is a good balance between the tone-setting/navel-gazing and chunky, eyeball-rattling riffage. Further, it’s all threaded together in a way that’s very loose and stream of consciousness. This is what allows the angular post-sludge reminiscent of Isis to brush shoulders with retro-tinged psych rock (without sounding contrived) on “Force Me Open.” Though “Born of Fire” is the most straightforward of the bunch, this surprisingly catchy sludge number unravels in the latter third to subside into a doomy gurgle. “Predators” has a creepy Tool kind of flavor that meshes with something akin to Pelican’s weary riffing before it goes all in on this proggy, The Ocean-lite sort of thing, wrapping up with an epic tremolo/choir outro. There’s a lot more to parse out on this overlooked debut and it may take a little time to get your bearings on it, but it’s definitely worth it given that the payoff always seems to have an interesting twist. (Plus, they recently got a vinyl press out on some beautiful wax.)