With all the bands sporting the word Alaska in their monikers — at least five use it as their stand-alone name and a dozen more include it in their title — it’s possible for Alaska! to get lost in the crowd. That’s unfortunate, because Rescue Through Tomahawk is a breakthrough album that distinguishes this southern-California band from all the others. Infused with an ethereal quality akin to some of the best work by Nick Drake, Elliott Smith and Neil Young, there is something at once beautiful and ominous in this first full-length under Alaska’s new lineup.
Imaad Wasif, who previously played with Lower Case and the Folk Implosion, is every bit the mystic poet on this collection of ten mostly mid-tempo songs that weigh in together at just less than fifty minutes. The album mostly finds Wasif brooding about what it means to be alive, how to find true union and how to find meaning in an uncertain world. There’s also a cynicism that can leave the listener feeling unsettled (just enough to give the songs an edge, anyway). It’s this intertwining of base reality and sublime beauty — one song mentions the “raped sunshine” and the “light that has no end” — that gives Rescue its authenticity.
In “Krystal Korpse” the band blends anxiety-laden high-end guitar chords with spooky bass lines provided by Russ Pollard, formerly of Sebadoh and the Folk Implosion. In an ominous croon that sounds like Nick Cave, Wasif sings, “Afraid of change/ Inside my skin/ I crawl and creep/ I change within.” It’s an intense song that seeks to chart an existential landscape, eventually demanding to know: “Can you see yourself dream inside a krystal korpse?”
The band also channels the Doors, the Animals and the Rolling Stones, and at points Wasif’s vocals sound inspired by glam rockers such as T.Rex. His slow, scratchy lead guitar is classic Neil Young, but it also evokes more recent influences, including Stephen Malkmus, Franz Ferdinand and the Strokes. As is the case with Sebadoh, there’s a spaciousness to Alaska!’s sound. Wasif’s upper-end guitar riffs and Pollard’s low-end bass chugs give each other plenty of room.
But whereas the Stones and the rest of Alaska!’s influences tend to be of the dark, Dionysian variety — relying as they do on a drunken, frenzied approach — Alaska!’s sound is decidedly more harmonious and grounded. A sense of enchantment runs through the album. For all its imagery of slain orphans, haunting ghosts and squirming lambs, Rescue is about transformation, about finding meaning and peace in the face of all that life can dish out. “In hazy eyes I still see signs of life,” Wasif sings on “Stay.” “A fever burning clean.”
The band cut the album at Tiny Telephone, a San Francisco studio that uses analogue tape instead of more modern digital recording methods. The resulting sound is warm and atmospheric, and the production is refined without being slick.
Still unclear is the extent to which Alaska! is a collaboration. Pollard’s bass playing is energetic and restrained, and along with crisp drumming from Lesley Ishino, it propels the songs forward and adds counterpoint that brings richness to the music. But with Wasif penning each song and setting so much of the album’s tone, Rescue could almost pass for a solo project. Whatever the case, Alaska! has delivered a sound that is vital and well worth listening to.