Photo courtesy of Yamantaka//Sonic Titan's website
Photo courtesy of Yamantaka//Sonic Titan's website

Yamantaka//Sonic Titan at Union Stage

“Well, I would hope so,” Alaska B deadpans when I ask her whether she and the rest of Yamantaka//Sonic Titan will be playing any of the music off their upcoming record, DIRT, at their Union Stage show.

Alaska has a way of speaking that reminds you convention is only that, convention. She drums, writes and produces the artwork for the Toronto-based, “Noh-wave” metal collective, who will release their third record March 23. That’s three days after their Union Stage show, March 20, though Alaska says you might find some vinyl copies of the record at the show.

“Maybe, maybe,” she says, emphasizing that it’s not yet confirmed. Over the phone, we talk about the show, DIRT and how hard it can be to mount a full Yamantaka//Sonic Titan show in 2018.

Since 2012’s YT//ST, the collective has been making not so much music as a Gesamtkunstwerk. Whenever possible, the group tries to turn their shows into all-encompassing arts experiences– part installation, part theater, part whatever else and, of course, music.

For instance, Alaska tells me about an installation they did over several days where they made and fixed a lion dance head on the wall of a warehouse. The piece was filled with lights which were programmed to flash in time with the music.

The “Noh” in their “Noh-wave” genre styling is also a reference to “Noh” theater, a type of traditional Japanese theater which, in contrast to Kabuki theater, focuses more on introspection and philosophical or psychological exploration.

That Noh-styling informed the tone of their past two records, YT//ST and UZU, according to Alaska; however, the group went a different direction on DIRT. They created the LP, following their work on the soundtrack to action-adventure game Severed, and Alaska says work on the game made them want to take another direction.

Severed was such a big project where they had to loop almost ad nauseam, (so they’re not really pop structures), and it kind of pushed us to do DIRT as a blisteringly hard, quick and fast sort of pop metal record, instead of, I don’t know, how do you call it? Navel gaze? The sort of looking down, spaced out way of [our] previous records.”

You can get a sense of what she means on the singles released so far: “Someplace,” “Hungry Ghost” and “Yandere.” The song structures are more apparent than on previous records, though we still hope to hear some of their older songs at Union Stage, including “One,” a track off UZU that starts off with a traditional Iroquois chant.

Alaska actually has a degree in computer animation and did the cover art for the singles. Like their previous records, DIRT takes place on the fictional planet Pureland and like the previous records, it follows a narrative, though on previous records the plot and songs didn’t always cohere.

“Our last two records had plots in place that we were writing for but often the song would inform the plot rather than the plot inform the song, and then at the end the plot would be so frayed it wouldn’t really make sense.”

For DIRT, they approached it more as if they were writing music for an already existing anime. They came up with character sheets, character designs, scene designs and concept art. They only stopped short of storyboarding because they weren’t actually making an anime.

“In approaching it that way, we would spend more time arguing the plot rather than the actual music.”

It’s an approach Alaska says they are trying out and are not 100 percent sure of, but she says they’re happy with the results and are already using it again in the development of their next record, which Alaska says they already have a title and concept art for. 

The plots of these records bear theatrical elements from their live shows, however, Alaska tells me that such shows have become more and more difficult to mount. She lays the blame on the way developers exploited the Ghost Ship warehouse fire of 2016 in Oakland.

“It wasn’t in Canada, so it’s bizarre that it would even affect us, but after [Ghost Ship], there was a huge push from the city to do sudden inspections and then that worked in tandem with condo builders to get those buildings condemned and evict everybody inside them.”

“Those buildings” she’s referring to are the warehouses and community spaces in which the group got their start and were allowed to thrive. These venues allowed them great freedom in doing their installations, in both what they would put up with (such as lion heads) and how long they would allow them to use the space (sometimes up to several days).

“That kind of show that we used to put on could not have happened without those kinds of venues and we’re living in a period of watching them vanish.”

Still, the Yamantaka//Sonic Titan installation-theater show has always been hard to mount while on the road. On tour, she says, they never have as much time or resources to truly convert a venue. Over the years they’ve streamlined the tour show down to what is feasible.

“Maybe one day if people keep coming to our shows we can afford some techs and then do a full show.”

I hope so. In the meantime, you can check out Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, Wednesday March 20 at Union Stage. Doors are at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. You can check out their music on Bandcamp, Spotify and Apple Music.

Union Stage: 740 Water St. SW, DC; 877-987-6487; www.unionstage.com

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Michael Loria

Michael Loria is a writer who focuses on art and music. For On Tap, his work includes a cover story on the Principal Conductor and Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda, for the December 2017 print edition, and features like his interviews with Carla Bruni and with Thievery Corporation. Collectively, he's penned more than 40 clips for the magazine.