March 13, 2013

Utah Is Metal and More

About a minute into Utah's new, self-titled record, the band's pace slackens and the tempo slows to a crawl. The ensuing sound has a menace to it, but also a bluesy, pentatonic warmth. This isn't exactly sludge; it's not industrial, either. Guitar riffs creep through heavy, downtuned distortion like sap through an old oak. This tree is gnarled and twisted, but it's alive.

Utah is, undeniably, a metal band. You need look no further than the “Moon Skull” t-shirt and similar paraphernalia for sale on the group's Bandcamp page. But over the course of its nine tracks, Utah features a much wider range of sound. In choosing too narrow a label, one risks obscuring what is potentially a much broader appeal.

This danger isn't lost on guitarist Wil Smith. “I hate saying we're metal, 'cause we're not really metal. But we're heavy, so I guess we are metal—it's like I don't even know!” he says, laughing.

Each of the band's four members has a heavy music background. Drummer Chris Holcombe and bassist Chris Parry are also members of local doomsayers Guzik—as was Smith, until recently—and lead guitarist John McNeece is similarly battle-hardened. Their tastes are varied, however.

“We all love classic rock, we love jazz, we love weird shit. Some of us even love some pop stuff,” Smith explains. “It just kind of all converges.”

It's clear that certain influences predominate. Smith mentions KISS, Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath. With one particular thought, he seems to hit on the crux of Utah's sound: “We love riffs, man… We love putting riffs together and calling it a song.”

Indeed, Utah's nine tracks are built on a series of memorable guitar lines, a form that proves surprisingly flexible. Certainly, the band has an epic, monolithic mode, evidence of how deeply the four players have absorbed the music of Black Sabbath. But there are moments when Smith and McNeece's guitar lines expand from straightforward riffs into something more complex.

In these moments, their playing has more of a melodic feel, and it's clear just how unbound the band is by any label. For example, the middle section of album opener “Bisontennial” wouldn't seem out of place on any of Stephen Malkmus' past few records. “Ambian” opens with a pair of mellow, meandering solos, shades of Neil Young that form a stark contrast to the pounding dirge at the song's center.

On the other hand, the metal tradition provides an integral aspect of the band's character, and it's interesting to see how this aspect works on Utah. “Traveler” tells the story of a “time-traveling space cowboy,” by Smith's description (“All power to the starboard shields,” begins one verse). The narrative, placed over a simple, straightforward riff, is what really propels the song forward.

As far as the relationship between lyrics and music, this is not so different from a song like “Breadcrumb Trail,” by the post-rock band Slint, from its iconic album Spiderland. But where that band employed asymmetrical rhythms and angular guitar lines, Utah takes the opposite approach, sticking with conventional time signatures and pentatonic riffs. By the same token, where the story in “Breadcrumb Trail” is odd and dreamlike, “Traveler” tells a raucous epic. The songs reflect the bands' respective personalities. In Utah's case, it's especially fitting that the narrative borrows from sci-fi, a genre akin to metal in its niche appeal.

Utah is a study in contrasts. Like any metal group worth its salt, the band has a logo: green lettering, the name spelled out in a properly gothic-looking script. Still, the name doesn't register as "metal" in the same way as monikers like Liturgy or Megadeth; similar names that come to mind are those of classic rock heavies Kansas and Alabama.

Smith has a suitably badass explanation: The state was named for the Ute Indians, he says, “the people of the mountain.”

But having established that bona fide, Smith admits to another motive. “I just wanted to keep it simple, man—a simple name that resonated in people's heads.” Like the music, metal and something more, the name is calibrated to intrigue, a simple contradiction. “It's Utah, from Athens, Georgia.”

WHO: Utah, Backwoods Payback
WHERE: Caledonia Lounge
WHEN: Tuesday, March 19
HOW MUCH: $5 (21+), $7 (18–20)