Note: after publication, I edited a bit the story about Hoshi Neko appearing below for accuracy.
Emerging as an altogether unique product from Montreal’s underground scene, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan defies any simple definition. As it has taken the alternative music scene in Canada (and further afield) by storm, perhaps one could most accurately say that YT//ST merely exists; and further, seems to kick ass while doing that.Co-founded by Alaska B and Ruby Kato Attwood, as simply a band YT//ST represents an ambitious fusion of high-energy progressive rock, rock opera and J-pop with elements of avant garde metal and post-rock as well. They recently released their first self-titled EP “YT//ST” (available for online purchase here), which has received consistently positive reviews far and wide.
However, ultimately Yamantaka // Sonic Titan represents a full scale multi-media art project aimed at decolonization, reclaiming appropriated sounds, mythologies and cultural motifs through music, illustration and performance art. As they say of themselves on their own website
Armed with mixed-race identities, mad illustration skills and a whole pile of home-brew junk electronics, alaska and Ruby wrote and performed the first mini ‘Noh-Wave’ Opera, ‘YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN I’ in April 2008. YT//ST continued to perform short homebrewed operas, eventually forming a network of Asian and Indigenous artists through collaboration and formed the current YT//ST collective.
The group also has Buddhist influences.
The present moment is an exciting time for the collective; they are presenting their rock opera ’33’ at the upcoming Rhubarb festival this week (Feb. 8 – 12) and it has just recently been announced that they will be performing in Minehead, UK at the upcoming iteration of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival curated by Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel (OMG ATP that is huge!).
Regarding the debut album, I have to say I’ve enjoyed it immensely since I downloaded it. I’ll state it here that I’m friends with some of the band members, but trust me when I say this is not the kind of thing that you end up liking because you want to be nice to your friend. It’s more like the kind of thing you end up liking it so much you worry over gushing about it to them.
It took me a few listens to really get immersed in it, but the range and complexity of what they are doing on this short album is quite impressive. The cover is reminiscent of the opening sequence of the classic Japanese Anime Akira (intentionally so, according to Alaska B) and like the soundtrack to that film, ‘YT//ST’ starts off with a thunder strike. This begins the short intro track “Racoon Song” featuring a chant-like voice that builds up, feeding directly into the second track “Queens,” which continues the build-up by introducing synthesizers and giving the listener their first taste of Ruby Kato Attwood’s voice in a melodic, J-pop-esque format (in fact, it took me a couple of listens before my brain could process that at least some of the lyrics here are actually in English). However, when Alaska B’s high energy drums come in about a third of the way through, the song escapes into something more like rock opera with J-pop flourishes.
My favorite moments on the album would be the fifth and sixth tracks, ‘Hoshi Neko’ and ‘A Star Over Pureland.’ While I’m not so good with foreign languages, I did spend a bit of time in Japan, which helps me to pick up a few phrases in ‘Hoshi Neko,’ enough to recognize it was telling some personal narrative that I would naively just describe as very sweet. One thing though is that I could swear Ruby Kato Attwood was actually singing ‘Hoshi Noe Koe’ rather than ‘Hoshi Neko’ in the song.
I actually had an opportunity to chat with Ruby before their Jan. 28 show at Toronto’s Garrison. She described to me the background story to ‘Hoshi Neko,’ which was somehow even sweeter than I imagined. It turns out that Hoshi, meaning “star” in Japanese, was the name of her cat back in Montreal. The Japanese phrase Hoshi Neko actually means “Hoshi cat,” however the phrase appearing in the song is actually Hoshi Noe Koe, meaning “voice from a distant star.”
At one point, Hoshi ran away and Ruby made a film based on adventures she imagined he would be having as he escaped into outer space. She had only a single copy of this animation in 16 mm format (the original) that she mailed back to her home address in Montreal as she was traveling. However, the film didn’t arrive when she got home. Further, Ruby was distraught and looked everywhere for her cat with no luck. Without any leads, she had no choice but to focus on an upcoming move to Toronto (where she lives now).
However, the day before she left she walked by a house not so far from her home in Montreal and was happy to find Hoshi sitting outside; it turned out he had been taken in by a new family (perhaps after returning from his voyages in the cosmos!). Of course she wanted to take Hoshi with her, but there wasn’t enough time to work out the issue with the second family, so she contented herself knowing that her cat was safe and seemed happy in a new home. Then, arriving back at her own house, she found the 16 mm film had finally arrived, just before she left the city.
After concluding our conversation, later that night I found the concert itself to be really amazing; Yamantaka // Sonic Titan puts on a good show. They played the full album all the way through except for an additional song between the fourth and fifth tracks and another as the encore.
They opened the show with the introduction of a large double-headed paper maché dragon that wandered through the crowd over a drum medley from Alaska B. This was followed by a really tight presentation of the work from their album; to my ears it sounded note-for-note, with perhaps a small critique that the vocals got a bit drowned out in a few moments (though that could just as well be attributed to the acoustics of the venue). I particularly enjoyed the intense, high-energy performance of ‘A Star Over Pureland’ live. During the heavier parts of the song Ruby’s spikish, periodically-delivered “huh… huh… huh… huh…” creates a powerful atmosphere, almost like the entire room is on one giant repeating electric circuit. The combination with co-singer Ange Loft’s scream-singing, all over shredding guitar riffs, couldn’t make for a more compelling contrast.
In the end, the one minor critique that I would make of the album is that there are a couple moments (such as the beginning of the final track) that I wish had a bit more gradual build-up to the heavier parts (okay, but what criticism did you expect from the leftytgirl who is still mourning the loss of Isis?).
More than anything I would say that I am looking forward to seeing where this ambitious collective ends up, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing (for my first time) their performance piece at Rhubarb Festival later this week. You should check them out too if you have the opportunity.