The 90s revival that has spawned reboots of both "X-Files" (pretty ok) and "Full House" (looks god-awful) has also expanded into the world of indie rock. Bands like Dilly Dally and Speedy Ortiz often get hit with labels like grunge and lazy in comparison to the bands that came before them. Out of all of the bands that fit in that ill-defined category, however, it’s a small Connecticut two-piece that manages to take those labels and turn them on their heads.
Violent Mae is a duo consisting of singer/guitarist Becky Kessler and drummer/everything else Floyd Kellogg. Though the songwriting duties fall to Kessler, Kellogg’s production meticulously frames every moment of the album forward like a cinematographer, making the sound of Violent Mae truly unique. "Kid," their sophomore album, marries shoegaze-style walls of sound with subtle folk-tinged songwriting to incredible effect.
“In The Sun,” the first tack on the album, mixes three chord rock sensibility with a signature physicality and texture. It rumbles and clanks with sharp guitar stabs that burst with anxious frenzy. The song’s jumpy tempo and compulsively listenable melody makes it the closest thing to a pop song on the album. This makes “In The Sun” a sort of gateway drug to Violent Mae’s sound; it is the surface layer of the album’s depths.
These depths are plunged into with the immense “In My Ring.” The song is centered around a crushing swell of low end tremolo and bass that is at once disarmingly intense and forcefully rhythmic. If you aren’t bobbing your head to “In My Ring," you aren’t human. The song later builds to a guitar solo that pierces the chest and rattles the brain. “In My Ring” is the sound of a band firing on all cylinders.
If “In My Ring” is a boulder, “Rob Me Blind” is the cascading waterfall that pours over it. This track is where Kellogg’s production takes a starring role; every moment of the song is filled to the brim with resonance and sound, as if you were listening to an orchestra in a construction site with your head underwater. The atmosphere and texture are as instrumental to the track as the drums and guitar. The song glides from verse to chorus with ethereal flow. As “Rob Me Blind” slides towards its climax, the song melts into an overwhelming wall of sound and vibration. “Away," however, is stripped down and soft; it gives the listener respite from the density of the previous tracks. The song rests a few simple oscillating chords with simple forlorn vocals. The song’s refrain “There’s no fight left in me now/There’s no life left in me now” rings true in an excellently nuanced vocal performance by Kessler.
From the moment the eponymous track “Kid” begins, you know that there’s more to the sparse guitar slyly oozing understated melody. The song maintains its discipline, staying restrained but quietly building in intensity. It’s like someone is about to get stabbed at a jazz club with a hurricane brewing outside; you know things are about to get dangerous fast, but you can’t help but be too hypnotized by the show to get out. “Kid” then builds shifts to a quicker tempo, as tension builds to a vicious fever-pitch. Kessler’s guitar work and vocals are eerily reminiscent of Jeff Buckley in his darkest, most dramatic moments. The astounding range of Kessler’s voice is also worth noting on this track as it swoops from low whispers to high wails. The song is a stand-out from the album, with its own dramatic structure, while also managing to integrate itself into the general feel of the album.
“Flame” is an exercise in subtle growth, with acoustic guitar and background vocals gently complimenting Kessler as the song slowly becomes heavier. The drums go from a quiet flourish to a monolithic crash and the guitar goes from restrained to fuzzy and deafening. The lyrics begin describing a quiet frustration and ends with hyperbolic declarations of love that are tinged with an undercurrent of desperation.
The next track, “Neon Haloes,” is also characterized by dramatic shifts in dynamics. The album’s longest track begins with a mix of low frequency rumbles and a simple, twinkly melody before dropping into a chunky, grungy riff. The chorus of the song, a repetition of the phrase “Oh well oh hell," feels at once anthemic and resigned. Even in Violent Mae’s most outgoing moments, a hint of melancholy remains.
“Birthday” is sparse, standing out from the lush atmosphere of the album’s earlier tracks. Kellogg’s drums are conspicuously absent; the only accompaniment to Kessler are echoes of guitar bends in the background. As the track and album moves to a close, the restrained guitar devolves into something more violent and harsh. Kessler isn’t playing guitar as much as she’s beating the shit out of it, in the same way you beat the shit out of your pillow when words and tears don’t cut it. The guitar, mechanical and sharp as it is, communicates what the lyrics don’t and what words ultimately cannot. As the sound throbs and gradually fades away, the angst of the last eleven tracks dissipates.
It would be facile to reduce Violent Mae to its 90s influences. Though some elements are clearly adapted from that decade, the band’s sound is completely unique. Kid takes the drum-guitar duo cliche and turns it into something singular and important. The album is both a maturation of a relatively young band and an example of what indie rock can still be.
For fans of: Cat Power, Jeff Buckley, Beach House