In a little more than a decade, the independent heavy metal label Season of Mist has built something of a worldwide empire.
With offices in France and Philadelphia, Season of Mist's roster includes more than 100 bands drawn from pockets of the globe—the obvious suspects like France, America and Scandinavia, of course, and a load of unlikely locales, from Chile and Greece to Ukraine and Japan. Death, progressive, gothic, industrial, black, thrash, technical, symphonic, metalcore: Name a metal subgenre, and chances are, Season of Mist has released a few examples.
Last year, Season of Mist smartly signed Kylesa, a Savannah band whose two-drummer metal feels sticky and dirty, like the air of a hot night spent drinking beer in coastal Georgia. During the last decade, Southern metal offered one of music's greatest uprisings. Bands like Wilmington's Weedeater poured bongwater into their sludge, while Georgia's Baroness thundered around pirouetting guitar lines that suggested a heritage of Allmans. Mastodon signed to a major record label and got on MTV, and the irascible Harvey Milk finally surpassed cult status. Eyehategod—the surrogate fathers of all this Southern sickness—took a few victory laps around the country. Their original vitriol began to get the due it's long deserved.
As a label, Season of Mist's aesthetic has long seemed that of the magpie, collecting interesting examples without being subservient to a particular sound. It was only a matter of time before they went digging for a slab of Southern metal. With Kylesa, Season of Mist landed one of the best.
In fact, Spiral Shadow—Kylesa's fifth LP, and the one they delivered to Season of Mist—is maybe a little too good for such a niche metal label. Mastodon has used its major-label status to work with big-name producers (Brendan O' Brien, who produced the band's second Warner Brothers LP, makes music with Train and Springsteen) and to indulge highfalutin concepts. Spiral Shadow is the sort of album that could have gatecrashed the mainstream.
Rather, Kylesa kept it modest, letting frontman Phillip Cope again produce at the Jam Room, an affordable spot in Columbia, S.C. Spiral Shadow punches up all of Kylesa's best assets—growling, howling vocals twisting over turbid guitar lines and weirdly woven drum lines—while anchoring it all with a perfect pop core. "Don't Look Back," the album's perfect burst, galvanizes each of those tendencies in just more than three minutes. Arguably the anthem of Southern metal, it ties an indelible hook to an unstoppable band. It's the best sort of browbeating you'll ever hear.
Kylesa's Southern metal brethren and frequent tour mates, Miami's Torche, have been making this kind of chewy pop-metal for years. Pop-metal is an unfortunate descriptor, of course, one that likely conjures glam-rock disasters or the heavier side of modern rock. "Don't Look Back" is radically different in construction and execution. Instead of piercing guitar leads that crackle through cheap speakers in pickup trucks, Kylesa emphasizes the middle and low frequencies. The bass and drums feel determined to kick through cones, while the guitars hang in the air like suffocating humidity. Kylesa has cited Built to Spill frequently as an influence on this record, and it's obvious on "Don't Look Back." The guitars swing with the same strange mix of fluidity and grit that's long made Doug Martsch one of indie rock's most meaningful musicians. Vocally, though, Kylesa cashes in more than Martsch ever has, turning the refrain into a rallying cry and a duet. "Keep moving/ Don't look back," Cope and guitarist Laura Pleasants keep exchanging. "Keep moving/ Don't look back."
That refrain is so good that, in retrospect, it seems a tad ironic. Insurgent and fresh, it's the sort of tune that, if handled correctly by moneybags at a label like Warner Brothers, could have given Southern metal—a land of outlaws like Weedeater, Buzzoven and Eyehategod—a direct link to the mainstream. It's the sort of tune that makes you wish Kylesa could look back.