It has only been a year since the Savannah metal quintet Kylesa unleashed its breakthrough album, Static Tensions, to the unsuspecting world. The band's last gap between records was the three years that separated 2006’s Time Will Fuse Its Worth from Static. Therefore, it’s initially a little hard to consider Spiral Shadow, Kylesa's fifth album, without noting that it’s being released barely outside of Static’s considerable shadow. To the band members’ extreme credit, their newest work manages to stand easily on its own as a more subdued, nuanced work, while also acting as a great companion to their previous release. In a career full of successful fusions of metal, psych, crusty punk and indie rock, Spiral Shadow is another triumph.
Where the majority of Static Tensions’ appeal came from its clenched-teeth intensity and instantly memorable riffs and the true coming out of the band's dual-drummer setup, Spiral Shadow finds Kylesa melding all of these things together into a more cohesive whole. It’s an album more about building up to huge blasts than about producing a concentrated stream of them. This is no more evident than in “Crowded Road,” which has a middle section that calls to mind a team of dancers, steadily increasing in speed and technicality before guitarists/vocalists Phillip Cope and Laura Pleasants unspool a pair of several-note runs that wrap around each other like a tangled set of wires. Or take the beginning of album opener and first single “Tired Climb,” in which the near minute of overlapping drums and sparkling guitars suddenly rips into a fierce chug.
Pleasants takes her performances to a whole new level this time around. While she’s always been a versatile vocalist, able to add ethereal backing vocals just as well as a fighter-jet howl, there are times here where she just steals the show. On “Cheating Synergy” and “Drop Out,” she offers two of her most downright nasty vocal appearances to date, tearing both tracks to shreds with her blood-curdling yells. Regarding the opposite end of her spectrum, look no further than her commanding chorus performance on “Distance Closing In,” or the fact that she dominates most of the album’s second half.
On “Don’t Look Back,” Kylesa takes its first real foray into almost (insert audible gasp here) poppy melodies. Over a steady lurch, a rabidly infectious guitar part spins in circles. Cope’s mantra-like vocals lodge in the brain, while Pleasants coos in the background as if she were on some lost My Bloody Valentine track. Some may cry foul at this sudden embrace of unabashed melodicism, but the track’s hypnotic swirl matches up with the song structures they’ve explored in the past.
Other bands would kill to achieve Kylesa’s level of consistency, and the fact that the Georgia-based group is able to do this while tapping from so many kegs of influence makes its output that much more respectable. Had Static Tensions and Spiral Shadow been combined, they would have made one hell of a double album. At the same time, it’s just as satisfying to watch Kylesa continue to evolve year after year, earning its place near the top of bands producing modern heavy music.