Review Summary: A highly flammable cocktail of clashing flavours.
Every minute I’ve spent bobbing my head and twisting my neck while listening to Heavy Yoke
, I’ve been also giggling like an idiot thinking about the impossible background of the band’s members, specially singer Eleni Zafiriadou’s. For seasoned bassist Liam Wilson (ex-The Dillinger Escape Plan), Azusa must feel like that old and comfortable sofa where you’ve been napping for years, and the same goes for Extol former plot masters Christer Espevoll (guitar) and David Husvik (drums). In the case of Eleni though, her most recent musical endeavour, aside from a reunion tour of the German hardcore band Jumbo Jet, was an indie pop duo, which she founded with her husband and former Jumbo Jet member Daniel Benjamin, a project called Sea + Air. How, when and why she bridged from fairy bubble land to demented cosmic Texas will always remain a mystery to me.
But I’m grateful she did. As soon as “Interestellar Islands” is unleashed, Eleni’s indie pop roots are burnt to a crisp. Her visceral screams lead the frantic thrash galloping like a hungry wolf chasing the herd. Espevoll’s palm muted triplets are a constant in Azusa’s first release. He punishes the strings as Wilson and Husvik’s rhythmic sections whip and slap in flawless unison. The band sounds fresh, even if drinking from many different fountains and walking along the treacherous cliffs of math-core county. The shadow of Dillinger Escape Plan is obviously long and wide, but Extol members, fairly accustomed to switching styles in their previous project, provide enough ideas and resources for Azusa to retain its personality. To claim they sound “tight” would be an understatement.
The focus though, is on Eleni’s approach to vocals. The almost traditional clean/harsh dichotomy is present, but it’s often so wild that it becomes unpredictable enough to keep ears in suspense. Not only that, Eleni excels both in belting her lungs out and in creating memorable melodies. Some of them are beautiful and enticing, while other times she sounds like she is sleep talking, or even twitching her tone to wail like a mermaid crazed by her own mesmerizing song.
Another strong point of Heavy Yoke
is how it makes art out of contrast. Disparity is the band’s introduction card. Not to the point of having Hannah Montana fronting Megadeth, but there are a good number of examples that illustrate their infectious chemistry. Highlights like “Spellbinder” or “Heart of Stone” are a good showcase of Azusa’s clever fusion of old school thrash, post hardcore and, as crazy as it sounds, indie pop. A more specific one would be the chorus of title track “Heavy Yoke”, where Eleni briefly gives a glimpse of her indie pop influence, then the hardcore screams she carried over from Jumbo Jet take over with a vengeance. The switch in style feels natural and confident, and the way the band waves and moves effortlessly with her solidifies this formula. The dynamic of the songs are perfectly paced, with little to no time for the listener to phase out of Azusa’s machinations. This, combined with extremely short tracks like “Fine Lines” or “Succumb to Sorrow”, makes up for an album that runs on high combustion and hardly ever releases the tension.
Thematically, Heavy Yoke
seems to explore the intricacies of some kind of cognitive hell. Cryptic and deceiving, the words spit out from Eleni’s mouth like poison, with fear being the main evil in effect. A dread that, on the other hand, don't seem to apply to the reality of the band. Azusa lands on a crowded planet, one that has met, judged and sentenced many experiments before them. But they do so with a remarkable album, far more impressive being the first work of, hopefully, many more. If they are able to bolt the way they do with a yoke pulling them down, I don’t want to imagine what they will be able to achieve when the weight is off them.