Chicago four-piece Yakuza, formed in 1999, self-released their debut Amount to Nothing in 2000, an off-kilter post-hardcore album that made some waves in local press. Their follow-up, Way of the Dead, marked significant stylistic changes, showcasing their eclecticism and taking a more avant-garde and jazzy approach. This was their only release via Century Media Records, and since their follow-up (2006’s Samsara) all the way to 2012’s Beyul they have remained quite firmly in the underground, despite their talent, songwriting and musicianship being often tantamount to some of the most forward-thinking metal acts of the 2000s and beyond. After twelve years of side-projects and setbacks the enigmatic quartet have returned with their seventh full-length release, Sutra.
The album’s only single ‘Alice’ serves as the record’s second track, flush with riffs that call to mind some of Mastodon’s sludgiest moments. Singer/saxophonist Bruce Lamont’s vocals are urgent, hypnotic, fading in and soaring over guitarist Matt McClelland’s relentless chugging. A track that is also in fact a kind of double homage: ‘Alice’ being the only working title from the record that remained unchanged; originally named so after one of the song’s riffs reminded McClelland of Alice in Chains, Lamont made an adjacent connection, lyrically basing the song on the works of English Author Lewis Carroll (namely, Alice in Wonderland).
‘Echoes from the sky’ displays more of the band’s mathier sounds, and in the second half we have our first taste of Lamont’s saxophones, one of the band’s signature traits that set them apart not only from their peers in the Chicago metal scene but nationally as an avant-garde metal act. The saxes come in huge layers here, wailing and droning, making for something quite unbelonging to the Occident. Yakuza have always stuck by a uniquely freeform writing process; their song structures are as loose and chaotic as their eclectic influences: everything from world music to Blut Aus Nord to King Crimson to John Coltrane—and yet they’ve have never left behind their hardcore roots, and it is this, their raw delivery that has set them apart from so much of the predictable and clean-cut post-metal that has clogged the 21st century.
‘Capricorn Rising’ is a standout track; dreamy jazz rock that makes way for pacing guitars, Lamont’s vocals becoming more and more primal; McClelland constantly toying with different riff variations, from the tremolo-picked to huge open riffs, with a crescendocore build and climax. In ‘Burn After Reading’, doomy riffs and aggressive cathartic vox suddenly transition into a jazzgaze mirage; once again the band displaying bipolarity and caprice, eventually building up to huge, crushing riffs before ending abruptly. ‘Psychic Malaise’, with its low-end sludge riffs and psychedelia, almost brings to mind some of Kylesa’s moments on their 2010 release Spiral Shadow with some brief dives into doom-jazz despair.
Sutra as an album is almost oxymoronic by nature, cerebrally at odds with itself; on one hand it’s their most chaotic and capricious album to date, yet it’s also their most cohesive. The further we delve into the rabbit hole—although we become further aware that we are in a structureless realm—every sonic ambush hits hard—and as if we were slowly moving a needle towards a balloon, if anything the foresight of drastic shifts in mood only add weight to the nonlinear systems they work within.
Sutra is also one of their proggiest albums yet, especially in the sense that, like with so many great prog records, it deserves listen after listen as every one will reveal new secrets—segues that you missed because you were still so engaged with the one preceding; constant thematic variations; nothing ever repeated, but reimagined. Eleven years since their last release and here is a band that somehow continues to evolve yet remain very much themselves, because even when Yakuza stick to their guns, they still have more ballistic intensity than most.
Sutra is out now via Svart Records and can be purchased here.
Words: Rory Hughes