Review Summary: Vanna alternately hit their target exactly and miss completely in their uneven debut album
On a family trip to California one year, my quiet cousin said the only sentence I’ve heard him speak before 11 AM. He looked at my Chiodos shirt and mumbled, “Ever heard of Vanna?” I hadn’t, but ensured him I would. Four years later, I have finally fulfilled my word and am regretting that I hadn‘t given them a chance earlier.
Vanna are a band without a gimmick. The Devil Wears Prada has a Christian message and one stanza of clean vocals to mix it up, Emmure have the most brutal breakdowns on the planet and a feud with The Acacia Strain and Liferuiner are raving straightedges. On the other end of the ‘core’ genre spectrum are Vanna, five guys with really tight guitar lines and a reputation for being a really good live act. Because they don’t follow a formula and don’t have any message that they feel must be forced into every song, they touch on many topics in their songs, including stalking in the opening breakdown of closer “She’s a Real Battleaxe.” This freedom is one that Vanna exploits to their advantage and avoid repeating as much as possible, changing motifs as often as three times per song. As a result, the “album” clocks in at a very short 22 minutes but ends up sounding longer because of the distinct changes that they make. This makes them stand out as a shining beacon in the very formulaic genre that they occupy.
Another thing that makes them stand out doesn’t necessarily distinguish them in a good way: production quality. In the dark days before Joey Sturgis was the de facto producer for genericore music bands had to make the decisions for themselves. Vanna clearly made the wrong choice with Fred Archambault, most of the songs sound under produced and unrefined. While this end the careers of most other musicians, Vanna’s aptitude for live music shines through. The unrefined sound is something that the group is renowned for and actually, in some cases, makes them sound better. However, A Dead Language For a Dying Lady is almost unlistenable because of its poor sound. What the band lacks in production quality it makes up for in heart as they try to make it work with such bad equipment and actually construct an album that isn’t hindered greatly by this detail.
As if their poor equipment wasn’t bad enough, this album was recorded in the middle of a personnel change. Former vocalist, Joe Bragel, had recently been dismissed from the group and they hadn’t yet found a replacement. Undeterred, guitarists Nicholas Lambert and Evan Pharmakis each took on a vocal duty- Lambert doing the screaming while Pharmakis handles growls and clean- and it works extremely well. The two pronged attack, think Mike Hranica with a harsher sound, allows for the many motif changes to work as well as they do. Most bands of the post-hardcore genre have a very limited range of harsh vocals and because Vanna can mix it up with three- four including the inward screams at the beginning of ’Battleaxe’- distinctly different styles of singing and strong supporting instrumentation from drummer Brandon Davis, it makes them stand out in a positive light. Even though these vocals aren’t particularly notable, especially Pharmakis’ inconsistent growls, there is enough variety for the listener to ignore the shortcomings and get lost in the web they have woven.
This web is, regrettably, not a very cohesive one, as Vanna try to change things too often but it still prevents this from being a boring listen, something that it very easily could have been. None of the songs stick out as diamonds in the rough because as soon as they get a rhythm going, they change it up after a couple of minutes. This is not surprising, as they had to find a new creative direction to go in after the loss of Bragel but they try to go in too many direction on one album. This is a very ambitious project that just falls short of its mark, but is a quite good debut album, especially given the circumstances.
Recommended tracks: A Dead Language For a Dying Lady, Schadenfreude, She’s a Real Battleaxe