Sharp Darts: Liquid Metal 

In a rigid genre, Yakuza go their own way.

Yakuza, Emetic, Making Ghosts, Couldron

WHEN Sat 8/11, 9:30 PM

WHERE Subterranean, 2011 W. North

PRICE $10, $8 in advance

INFO 773-278-6600 or 866-468-3401

Plenty of metal dudes style themselves as dark warriors who operate outside the laws of men, carrying on about "do what thou wilt" satano-libertarianism, but for all that noise the scene is actually kind of uptight and puritanical. Bands are expected to perform with machinelike precision, and many fans regard experimentation outside established genre lines as ideologically suspect if not flat-out treasonous.

The guys in Yakuza don't give a shit about that shit. They'll say it to your face, but if you've heard their music that'll hardly be necessary. No band worried about satisfying orthodox trufans would let their songs spiral into hanging-garden psychedelia or build them around rhythms and time signatures more likely to turn up in the world-music section. And they definitely wouldn't have anything to do with a front man who spends half his time playing saxophone--an instrument that historically has gotten no love from metalheads.

That's not to say Yakuza is anything but a metal band at heart. Though the songs frequently detour into evocative atmospheric passages--sometimes lush and humid, sometimes stark and barren--there's no shortage of chugging distorted guitar or tortured, slate gray vocals. "Obviously we all have a foundation in metal," says drummer Jim Staffel. "But we're all just music fans." During long tour drives the Yakuza van rocks a lot of Slayer and Kyuss, a lot of Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, and a bit of Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed. "There's maybe a handful of bands that we're all collectively like, 'Wow, this is amazing,'" explains front man Bruce Lamont. "I think we all have a band that the rest of us don't like," adds guitarist Matt McClelland. Bassist John Bomher, whose only contribution to the conversation has been to state his name for the record, nods. He looks like he'd rather be playing. They all do.

To be fair, we're talking in their practice room, which by design isn't much of a hangout spot. They got rid of the couch to help them focus--just about the only thing you can't make noise with is the pentagram poster. It's a functional space befitting a band of workaholics. Formed in 1999, Yakuza released their full-length debut, Amount to Nothing, less than a year after they started rehearsing. "I think Bruce was in the band for two months before we made that first record," says Staffel. "I think we actually did a four-day tour in a pickup truck before it was even printed."

Since then they've hit the road more times than they can count--with a dozen or so different bands in the past year alone, including the likes of Dysrhythmia and Intronaut--and put out three more albums. The latest is Transmutations (Prosthetic), which they're celebrating with a release party Saturday at Subterranean.

Everyone in the band has at least one side project, and members pop up regularly as guests with other groups. So far Lamont has been the busiest, with a solo act he took to South by Southwest this year and collaborations with Cephalic Carnage, local dub-punk band the Jai-Alai Savant, and Chicago jazzers like Jeff Parker and Nate McBride, among many others. (His next solo show is Sunday at the Empty Bottle.) Yakuza also plays the occasional improvised set under the name Kabuki Mono.

Yakuza's distaste for inertia is largely responsible for their musical direction. They're all in their early 30s--Lamont, at 35, is the oldest--and they've been in the metal scene too long to stay happy doing the same old thing. If Yakuza weren't constantly experimenting, Staffel says, "I'd probably be really bored." The role Lamont's sax plays in the music is a consequence of this restlessness--he originally signed on as a vocalist only. "When the band first started, one of the things we were discussing was different options," he recalls. "I think it was Jim that asked me if I played any other instruments, and I said, 'Well yeah, I play saxophone.' And everybody perked up at that."

Lamont was reluctant to bring the horn to practice, and once he did, he had a hard time making it fit. "An acoustic-based kind of instrument like that doesn't really, to my mind and my ears, sound proper with distorted guitars," he says. He solved that problem to his own satisfaction with a bank of electronic effects, but the greater headbanging audience has been tougher to convince. Though Yakuza has made plenty of converts--"They're like, 'Yes! Oh God, finally something out of the norm,'" says Lamont--for every fan they win it seems like there's a legion of listeners who can't deal with what they're doing. "There's not a market for this," Staffel says. Yakuza's previous album for Prosthetic, last year's Samsara, sold about 5,000 copies. "Our poor record label," Lamont says mournfully. "That's the reaction every time: 'Awesome record. How do we market this?'"

I don't have any suggestions. Transmutations is a strange album. The opening track, "Meat Curtains," alternates between grim sludge--like Mogwai trying to approximate doom metal--and spastic multimetrical thrash, delivering artsy textures and avant-metal kicks in equal doses. The next cut, "Egocide," starts with three mellow minutes--African-inspired percussion, clean vocals, a keening sax part that could almost pass for Middle Eastern smooth jazz--then bursts into knotty, high-speed riffage and Cookie Monster yowls. I can imagine an audience for the world-jazz parts of "Egocide" and another for its metal parts--the band plays them equally well--but I'm not sure how many people want both in one song.

Like a lot of bands making music that's uncompromisingly uncommercial but incredibly exciting, Yakuza is big with other musicians. Staffel says their shows are "generally full of dudes that play, and maybe they'll bring their girlfriend or something," but he's talking about more than the obligatory contingent of bedroom shredders with poor social skills. Yakuza's appearances at festivals and on package tours (Warped, Milwaukee Metalfest, the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival) have earned them fans in bands across the heavy-music spectrum--with its ambitious range, their material must stand out especially starkly when it's bracketed by hours of nonstop overdrive. They have admirers in world-class progressive-metal outfits like Isis, Mastodon, and Tool, and when they gig around Chicago the crowd often includes guys from top-tier local acts like Minsk and Nachmystium. Sanford Parker, who plays bass with Minsk and recorded Transmutations, praises the band for "fusing the heavy and the ethereal into one awesome beast."

In what might be an even bigger coup, though, Yakuza has won over some of the leading lights of Chicago's thriving jazz and improv scene. Saxophonist Ken Vandermark, keyboardist Jim Baker, and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm have contributed to previous records, and for Transmutations the band scored guest appearances from percussionists Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang--a truly epic feat, since Drake is in demand all over the world these days. Zerang was probably a little easier to get on board: at almost every Yakuza show in town you can see him up front headbanging.

As you might expect from guys who've foregone the pursuit of popularity to make music they find personally challenging, the guys in Yakuza have little patience for bands without backbone. When Lamont went to see Goatwhore on the Sounds of the Underground tour last month, he caused a ruckus during a set by Christian metalcore band the Devil Wears Prada. It didn't piss him off that they thanked God from the stage--he hated that they apologized to anyone who might not share their beliefs. "I was like, 'Aw, come on! Goddamn it, you fucking pussies, stand up for what you believe in!'" he says. "I'm like 20 years older than everyone in the crowd, and they're like, 'The old dude is flipping out again.' Damn right I am."

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Chris Roo.

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