The science of chemistry tells us that the addition and/or subtraction of specific elements to and from one another produces predictable reactions and outcomes. Bond a few hundred million hydrogen atoms to half as many oxygen atoms in a contained space and you can go swimming. Throw in chlorine crystalline hydrates to create hypochlorous acid and the resulting reaction will allow you to belly flop to your hearts' content without having to worry about non-toilet trained kids and spitters of all ages. You get the idea.
Creative chemistry, on the other hand, is a whole different ball game. The results emerging from the back end of a creative chemistry compound are more subjective, amorphous and difficult to predict. And even if the source elements can be distilled and identified, it's impossible to quantify what causes and creates the energy that exists between those elements. In the case of Savannah, GA's Kylesa, those standing elements are Phillip Cope, Laura Pleasants and Carl McGinley, the creative nucleus of the progressive, psychedelically stratified, metallic-laced, heavy rock veterans who, with seventh album, Exhausting Fire, provide a crowning example of the positive output that comes at the hands of the trio's incendiary and powerful, yet nuanced and colourful, framework.
Following on the heels of the artistic broad jumps the band has exhibited since forming in 2001, Exhausting Fire hurls even more rulebook pages out the tour van window as Kylesa further explore and incorporate psychedelic rock, new wave, space-age twangy Americana, 80s goth and death rock into their pitch-thick DIY punk/metal roots. But as much as change is a constant in their world ("Anyone who's been following us this long is going to expect things to be slightly different each time. That's the most normal thing about our band!" laughs guitarist/vocalist, Cope), there exists connective tissue to the past despite Exhausting Fire being the most diverse, dynamic and fully-realized work of their discography.
"Every album of ours has a theme,"" says Phillip. "Static Tension was about tension, Spiral Shadow was about distance and Ultraviolet was loss. Exhausting Fire is all about rebuilding. The band was going through hard times; our tour cycle was hard, we were questioning where we were at and we had to rebuild ourselves as a band, push forward and work on our own foundations so as not get stuck. That contributed to how hard we worked on this record."
Nowhere on the new album is this notion better exemplified than on "Moving Day."" In addition to being a collision of solemn, Thatcher-era new wave and mournful swamp rock, the song is actually the final part of a trilogy that includes Ultraviolet's "Low Tide" and "Dust" from Spiral Shadow, as well as being a nod to that album's breakout single "Don't Look Back."
"Sometimes you just need to let go and move on," explains Cope, "and 'Moving Day' is about being forced to look forward, even if you don't want to."
"I generally like a play on words and don't want to be too literal because our music and lyrics aren't," adds fellow guitarist/vocalist, Pleasants about the album's enigmatic title and the grey area celebrated around the idea of reconstitution and reconstruction after falling prey to destructive forces. "If you think of fire the first thing you think of is flames, but fire has many connotations: it can also refer to the sun, the fire of emotion, of passion, of love...Exhaustion can mean many different things as well, like being physically exhausted or actually putting out a fire. The juxtaposition of themes like light and dark, hot and cold are fun to play with and keep things abstract and mysterious."
In writing Exhausting Fire, the trio found themselves culling inspirations before getting together in various permutations at various times to wade through the amassed collections of riffs and ideas stockpiled before, during and after the punishing Ultraviolet tour schedule. Once he was able to remove himself from the interruptions and stresses of road life, Cope took solace in the therapeutic qualities he finds in song writing to lock himself in a room with an amp and a few effects pedals to suss out the ideas that would pop into his head during the countless hours spent staring at dashed lane dividers and highway medians. Laura reports embracing the travelling she had embarked upon independently over the past couple of years and being inspired by not only the places she visited, but a lot of the underground and more mainstream bands she witnessed and shared stages with around the world. While Carl found himself having to split his mind in two, as the departure of second drummer Eric Hernandez placed the responsibility of writing and performing the dual drum parts that have become a Kylesa custom since 2006's Time Will Fuse its Worth on his shoulders.
"Every Kylesa record has its own vibe and identity and inspiration can come from everything," offers Laura. "An album is a snapshot of what was going on in our lives: my musical life, my family life, my love life, everything. The lyrics and music are very personal and all sorts of moods and emotions went into this album. I think with Ultraviolet we got too far into doing what we wanted and forgot that Kylesa is, at heart, a heavy band. That's one thing I had to keep in mind because I am interested in different kinds of music and writing differently. With this one, I wanted to write heavy riffs, the kind I hadn't written in a while, and see where that took us."
Another curve Exhausting Fire throws at the listener is the manner in which the co-vocalists emerge sounding infinitely more comfortable and confident working as an integrative unit. Often, fiery, throaty expulsions are augmented by a backing choral flutter ("Lost and Confused," "Moving Day"), but also rising from the fray are moments of determined vocalization overlap with textures that range from singsongy wispiness to steely harshness ("Inward Debate," "Growing Roots"). The pair expertly dodge and weave around one another as an homage to the stratified spirit of their psychedelic influences while respecting the context of the song.
"I walked into this album saying, 'OK, I'm not screaming on this record,'" states Laura. "I'd decided I'd done it enough and that I wanted to explore other aspects of my voice and how to create heavy songs mixing in a feminine singing style. It is getting easier, overall. When we started the band, vocals weren't something that interested any of us, we just knew we didn't want a lead singer! So, we just did it. As time went on, we realized that if we weren't going to have a singer, we were going to have to figure it out. Phillip and I have been working together for so long that when I'm writing parts, I hear places where I hear his voice. I'm also feeling more comfortable backing up his lead parts, whereas a few records ago I wouldn’t have known what to do. We're both more confident as vocalists that we don't even talk that much about it anymore, we just know."
Captured at the familiar confines of the Jam Room in Columbia, SC, Exhausting Fire sees the trio immersing themselves deeper into themselves and their own process by refusing to hire an outside producer to assume Cope's position. In fact, he reports having additional engineering duties dropped into his production seat, and spending more hours than ever working behind the board.
"It goes back to chemistry," he says. "It works best to keep it between the three of us in the studio as well. We've thought about going elsewhere and letting someone else deal with it, but it's so hard explaining our ideas to other people and I don't think a lot of people realise this, but it's not easy to make records the way we make records with the experimenting and boundary-pushing we do and the amount we have going on in every song. It could be pretty nightmare-ish for someone else. The chemistry between us helps our ideas come out more true to form."
In that sense, it's not difficult to take the band at their word when Cope describes Exhausting Fire as "an album we really put our hearts on our sleeves for. We've always done that, but emotionally, it's probably the most honest and raw album we've ever done."
"No band sounds like us and we don't sound like any other band," concludes Pleasants. "After all these years of experimenting with different styles and sounds, we've really developed our own thing and I can faithfully say that we sound like us. With this album, we've successfully made a record that incorporates all the elements we've always played with into a record that works on its own."