[Album artwork by Terence Hannum]
If you’re a music fanatic or have any sort of strong connection to music fanatics, you probably heard about the unfortunate and sudden passing of Scott Walker on March 22nd of this year. This review obviously isn’t about Scott Walker, but it’s a fitting jumping point because Walker was, without question, one of music’s chancellors of avant-garde / experimental rock whose purpose it was to challenge the boundaries of “pleasing music” by surrounding it with exceedingly dark, jarring or otherwise uneasy elements, and as Revolver recently revealed in an interview with vocalist Josh Strawn, Walker had a huge impact on Vaura from the get go.
Similar to Walker’s later material, but to a reasonably lesser extent, the members of Vaura have also found pleasure in creating what would otherwise be considered “popular music” (in the 80s, at least) and spooking the horses using sinister pinches of dissonance and dread. In the past—2012’s Selenelion and 2013’s outstanding The Missing—a reliance on measures of well-timed post-black to further spice the cold and gothy brew was applied, but that actually ended up working more in beauty’s favor for songs like “The Fire.” With record number three, Sables, the direction is rerouted to sidestep metal entirely, save for the moments where guitarist Kevin Hufnagel (Gorguts, Dysrhythmia, Sabbath Assembly) channels a wonderfully peculiar Ibanez RG vibe that sounds a bit like an 80s’ shredder after being assimilated by the Borg—the closing moments of the eerie and great “Zwischen,” for example.
Shredding in the Delta Quadrant aside, the dominant approach here focuses on delivering a modernized darkwave / electro / synth-pop sci-fi gothic script that has more in common with the dreamier side of bands like Xymox and the Cocteau Twins (and maybe a bit of Catherine Wheel when there’s a little more bounce) than anything close to metal, and it’s filtered through a sound that has now become imminently “Vaura.” So, still very much pushing Strawn’s excellent voice and the band’s penchant for a catchy chorus under the spotlight, and mapping oodles of other elements around him like a series of well-placed security apps that can easily be called up when a threat is detected. Synth-armor is sleek, beautiful AND laser-deadly.
A song like “The Lightless Ones” demonstrates Vaura’s true knack for inspiring recollection. The music recalls a darker version of big sweater bands from the 80s like Tears For Fears and Talk Talk without outright mirroring them, and it also has an immediate power for stirring nostalgia and pleasantly gray & moody sentiments from years past. Opener “Espionage” and “No Guardians” further this trajectory—the prior with a danceable bit of funk in the rhythm, and the latter with a piano hook for the ages.
That Walker fondness for distress is never too far, though. It flecks the corners even when things are at their gentlest, it gives the closing title track a strangely satisfying sense of enlightened pessimism, and it takes center stage for the above mentioned “Zwischen” and particularly for cut number seven, “Basilisk (the Infinite Corpse).” Cycling back to that Revolver interview, Strawn also revealed:
That sense of dread and a looming annihilation hangs thick throughout “Basilisk (the Infinite Corpse),” and the use of industrial elements and futuristic synths tie in perfectly with Vaura’s gothic design.
It should be noted that the mixing job on Sables, the final puzzle piece to the Scott Walker connection, is provided by none other than Peter Walsh, a man whose work has not only contributed to Walker himself (Climate of Hunter, Tilt, The Drift and Bish Bosch), but also Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds, The Church, Gene Loves Jezebel, Xymox et al. The finished product results in an album that feels exceedingly dark, stripped and demanding of focus, but also expansive and eerily uncertain—not unlike a spotlight directed on an enticing piece of action in the center of a huge room that’s otherwise utterly black and concealing who the fuck knows what on those fringes. Put differently, landing Walsh’s services for Sables was a significant victory for the band.
So, why bother covering something that’s expressly un-metal for a metal website? Because heaviness comes in all shapes, sizes and disguises, and a record like Sables should find a place in the heart of any person who enjoys heavy as it pertains to dark, drifty goth music that’s as fitting for a soundtrack to investigating a rotting, long-forgotten space station as it is for a Death Guild afterparty. Distress and beauty hanging in a perfect balance.
• Josh Strawn – vocals, synthesizer, programming
• Kevin Hufnagel – guitar
• Toby Driver – bass
• Charlie Schmid – drums, programming and synthesizer on “Basilisk (the Infinite Corpse)”