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First Play: Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, Dirt

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Melody Lau

On Feb. 23, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan released an album trailer for their third album, Dirt (out March 23). The clip is just under a minute and a half, but it’s a clear, animated rendering of the band’s intricately thought-out narrative for the album. A fictional world named Pureland floats above flooded grounds in protective domes as its citizens try to retrieve uncorrupted soil to rebuild what’s been lost.

The band’s label was pleased with the end product, which member Alaska B put together in just four weeks, and naturally asked a followup question: "Where’s the full film?"

“There is no full-length thing,” Alaska B says, recalling her response with a laugh. “I could, but we just don’t have any funding.”

Funding has never stopped B and her bandmates from stretching their vision to cinematic proportions, though. Formed in 2007, the then-Montreal/Toronto collective (now exclusively made up of Toronto members) always exhibited a type of ambition that defied limitations. As a result, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan boasts a hardworking DIY mentality that has, so far, produced three albums, a drag rock opera and a soundtrack to a video game. B admits that wearing so many hats in a band — drummer, producer, storyteller, visual artist — can be stressful at times, but “as long as you can stack the hats, then it’s OK.”

While we may never see a full graphic novel or animé of Dirt, the album was planned around a complete story. After some time off following the band's 2013 album, UZU — during which its lineup shifted (singer Ruby Kato Attwood and guitarist John Ancheta left in 2015) and the members worked on the aforementioned video game soundtrack with fellow Toronto act Pantayo — B presented the band with a comprehensive plan.

“When we started working on this one, I said to everybody, ‘OK, we’re going to take that extra time to just plan an entire film’s worth of content, visually and narratively, before we write a single moment of music,” she explains, knowing full well that a film wasn’t feasible but still a standard she wanted to set. For B, the narrative and music both hold equal importance. “I want to say it’s 50/50, but it’s more like a clean 100/100,” she adds.

It may sound like twice the amount of work, but Yamantaka // Sonic Titan are committed to delivering a full experience. Dirt is the band’s most streamlined album yet, with each of its 10 songs perfectly aligned to the story that explores “how humanity continues to succumb to its worst impulses,” yet never sacrificing their musicality. At their best, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan straddle the line between metal and pop music, while drawing from members' Asian diasporic and Indigenous perspectives to create a sound they've famously called "Noh-wave."

“Dark Waters” and “Yandere” are prime examples of songs that hurdle out of the gate with breakneck guitars and electronic flourishes but, at its core, reveals some incredibly memorable hooks. The latter savagely warns its subject: “Doesn’t matter what you put me through/ no one else can have what I get from you/ can wait to get you alone/ strip the meat from the bone.”

There is a long list of influences that helped shape the tale at the center of Dirt, from the Haudenosaunee tale of the Sky Woman (member Ange Loft is from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory) to the six bardos of Tibetan Buddhism that anchor the middle six tracks of the album. All of this furthers some environmental themes presented on their last album, as B expands: “It’s us pointing fingers at ourselves as we watch our Earth waste away ... the reality is that [the people of Pureland] are now facing the repercussions of not caring.”

Pureland is a fictional place that has been present throughout all three of Yamantaka // Sonic Titan's records; the end of UZU finds Pureland flooded, and Dirt picks up on the story 10,000 years into the future. As a spoiler alert, no matter how much Pureland’s occupants try to change their fate, their mission to find soil was ultimately futile, and everyone dies at the end of Dirt.

This fatalistic view is, in some ways, an extension of B’s personal beliefs. She doesn’t believe in reincarnation, even though she’s a Buddhist, and she asserts the fact that “you only have this much time and, in this time, if nothing else gets you, death will.” At the heart of it, B argues that while Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s music “sounds rageful, it’s actually the frustration of being human, being alive and dealing with what that means.”

When I question whether or not B is a pessimist then, considering the dour images Dirt conjures up at times, she says she doesn’t think of it as pessimism “because that would mean that I believe that there actually is a good and bad.”

“What I actually believe is that this just sucks,” she says, plainly. “It sucks from every objective measurement. I’m going to grow old and die, and everybody I love will die. Everything dies. It’s the noble truths, it’s so simple, and it’s not like that’s a bad thing. It’s actually kind of relieving — can you imagine having to live and suffer and never die? Ugh!"

“So it’s like, if I’m going to have to suffer then dying is like the bonus, in a way,” she continues. “I don’t think about it like it’s fatalistic because I don’t believe that there’s a fate. I just believe that there are the choices that you make and the outcomes of them.”

More to explore:

Yamantaka // Sonic Titan to Wolf Saga: meet Indigenous artists pushing the boundaries of sound

Suuns, Iskwé, Black Atlass and more: songs you need to hear this week

Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, Preoccupations, Zaki Ibrahim: Radio 3's top 30 songs for the week of February 12, 2018