Polaris shortlisters Yamantaka // Sonic Titan bring theatrical concert act to Guelph
Jan. 24, 2013
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan (YT//ST) fans who turned out to eBar on Jan. 17 might have been confused when the headliner began its set with just three members occupying the stage, but any confusion was soon resolved after a dragon parted the sea of concertgoers, slowly worming its way up to the stage.
You read that correctly: YT//ST unleashed a dragon on its audience.
Held aloft by YT//ST director and vocalist Ruby Kato Attwood and Ange Loft (vocals, percussion), the black-and-white paper dragon made an appearance in the vein of Chinese Dragon Dance ceremonies dating back to the Han Dynasty, and it was just one of the many cultural signifiers concert-goers were presented that night.
This is standard fare for the YT//ST camp, and mention of the routine only brushes the surface of what the group has in store.
Originally formed in Montreal by Ruby Kato Attwood and Alaska B – both of mixed Asian-European heritage – YT//ST identifies itself to its audiences as an “Asian, Indigenous and Diasporic Art Collective,” and as such, cultural aesthetics gleaned from the Eastern and Western cultures (Nôh, J-Pop, C-pop, manga, Chinese Opera, First Nations Mythology, Iroquois core, prog, black metal, punk and noise rock, to name a few discernable influences) are staples in their diverse output – musically, visually, theatrically, and philosophically. The group also invented the term “Noh-Wave” (a pun on Nôh theatre and the stripped down, experimental No Wave scene of mid-’70s New York City) as a genre category that affords them to avoid the exhausting practice of placing art within predetermined boundaries when being asked to describe their style to outsiders.
“People wanna gatekeep and we’re just kind of more interested in kind of… You know, you point in a billion directions at once and they’re too busy looking, and by the time they look back you’ve already stolen everything,” Alaska B – who performs vocals, drums, and keys, in addition to carrying out other duties for YT//ST – told The Ontarion in a back office of the eBar while opening acts primed the audience for the group’s Guelph performance.
To wit, the process of presenting appropriated (“mal-appropriated,” B emphasizes) cultural aesthetics in a hybrid pastiche is a controversial avenue for any artistic undertaking to pursue. But it’s one B and the rest of the group will argue for.
“I think that’s literally a bullshit catch-22,” said B. “You police expression and then you selectively grant – based on your political opinion – what is appropriate, authentic, or real. And I think that’s a trap that you fall into automatically, based on your ethnic background, cultural appearance, et cetera. And that’s something you can’t escape from.”
“What I find funny is how whenever we played without saying who we were, people [said] it anyways. And so, it was like, ah, we’ll just say what it is and that means that we can have the conversation on our terms.”
The group provides representations of cultures that are selective and at times potentially cartoonish, but B maintains the collective refrains from participating in exotification of its source cultures because of its authentic approach to the subject matter; B is of Chinese-Irish heritage, Attwood is of Japanese-Scottish descent, and Loft is from the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, for starters.
“To exotify means that you have to distance yourself from what you’re doing. We’re not distancing ourselves at all.”
“I don’t think what we do is any more offensive, culturally, than punk rock is offensive in a class sense. How wearing the signifiers of a lower class is considered somehow revolutionary no matter who you are, while to knowingly don cartoon kind of costumes of your ethnic identity is somehow offensive,” B philosophized. “It kind of puts us in a position of like, you better dress traditional like it’s 1850, or you better dress like a white boy. Otherwise you get no space in between or you’re somehow gonna be racist.”
Something B finds more concerning is the tendency for bands that cannot claim the cultures they appropriate as having provided their ethnic identities to avoid acknowledging the positions of privilege they access those sources from.
“I find it funny that we have to have this conversation while bands like Indian Jewellery, Indian Handcrafts […] there’s so many bands that just kind of get away with whatever,” said B. “And they just say it, they do it, they appropriate, and ’cause they never ’fess up to it, people can dodge the conversation.”
The performer argues that YT//ST necessarily engages its audiences in a critical reading of the music scene the collective operates within.
“By critiquing us, you’re inadvertently critiquing the entire indie scene.”
Whatever your stance on the political motivations of the collective, for a group that began as a large scale theatrical performance art project – perhaps lubricated by a 2012 shortlisting for the Polaris Music Prize that brought them international attention – YT//ST has come to offer a concert experience of undeniable allure. While the group’s sound is often fragile, sweet, and atmospheric, also present is a brooding energy that builds up to an incendiary fever pitch. At the group’s Guelph performance, this was realized when, late in the set, the audience erupted into a bouncy mosh pit that even saw audience members crowd surfing throughout the eBar.
Loft indulged the enthusiastic audience by joining them in the pit when the group dove into an encore performance of “A Star Over Pureland,” returning only at the end of the track to deliver a booming chant.
If you feel YT//ST’s already impressive dossier doesn’t leave much room to grow, the group is also currently absorbed in the process of putting together a side-scrolling video game (a play on YT//ST’s initials, it’ll be called Your Task // Shoot Things) scored with an original soundtrack from the collective.
“It’s like a full-on little rock opera with a narrative that you play through,” said B.
The group is hoping to reach out to the public for input at a series of work-in-progress presentations and eventually involve a studio, but B is determined the game will be YT//ST’s own.
“There are bands that’ve had video games based on their franchise, where they order them like an advergame – like the Skrillex Quest. The difference is, is that as far as I know, none of them actually took the time to sit around and fart out code. So we’ll be probably the first band to ever make our own video game from start to finish.”
B imagines the process could take until early next year, but YT//ST fans won’t have to wait until then for new material.
“We’re also recording our second record,” said Attwood.
“We start recording in the next couple months,” said B. “We hope to have a record out by the end of the year.”
Beyond that, the group just has touring on its minds.
“We have some performances coming up, but we can’t announce them yet,” Attwood added. And with summer festival season not too far in the distance (and their lineup announcements approaching even sooner), that could mean augmented exposure for the industrious art collective.
(Originally published in The Ontarion on Jan. 24, 2013)