IKILLYA, a band from New York City, has just released their second cd: Vae Victis, a forceful and compelling collection of heavy music building off the many diverse traditions of Metal while creating new paths of its own. It makes an immediate impression with its raw aggression and intensity, and on repeated hearings increases its hold on the listener by slowly revealing layers of intelligence and complexity.
Jason Lekberg speaks often about the source of IKILLYA’s power, the “moment” the band inhabits. He compares the band to a grenade – inert and harmless in one state, then indiscriminately destructive. He speaks of the unique power of having been pushed too far, and then there is that powerful instant of strangely peaceful clarity when you comprehend what has happened and what must happen next, right before you lash out and swing despite the consequences. That flashpoint on the edge of stasis and explosion is IKILLYA.
As all their music derives its energy from that psychic moment, so the new album embodies this same point in the band’s chronology. They have grown, they have learned who they are, and now they are ready to break out. This is it. The title of the new album is Vae Victis, “Woe to the victims!” The Latin phrase derives from ancient Roman history, where it is shouted as a taunt to the besieged but ultimately victorious Romans by their enemies. It is, therefore, both a cry of victory and a challenge to the oppressed, as if to say “you won’t receive any mercy, so choose victory instead – or die trying.” The music of Vae Victis represents the warrior condition implied by the title: the tone is strong and ultimately triumphant, willing to confront the intensity of the struggle depicted and frankly aiming toward inspiration. It is heavy, but seeks new ways to earn that description.
This is Metal. Audiences will headbang to these songs. But there is more to the songs beyond pounding rhythms, even if some listeners may not at first notice the band’s complex and progressive structures. This is part of the band’s goal, one Lekberg compares to a magician’s sleight-of-hand. The audience may experience the smooth motion, while the magician has actually hidden a card behind their collective ears.
In the song “Driven”, for example, there is a discernible verse and a chorus – but they are not exactly where, or what, one would expect them to be. There are abrupt shifts in rhythm and key, but they are not perceived as abrupt. In this song and in others (notably in “Not Dead Yet” and “Jekyll Better Hyde”), it is apparent to the listener that there is a musical tension between chaos and coherence. At times, the vocal line is straightforward while the instruments take leave of standard forms; at other times, those roles are reversed. The symmetrical and the amorphous exist in dialogue throughout IKILLYA’s songs. This is a key aspect of IKILLYA’s sound. Some music in the world is pure noise; other music is melodically and rhythmically apparent. IKILLYA’S music emits from the tension between the two, and embodies both. The listener always has a point of entry to experience and collaborate, in a sense, in the wild wizardry of the musicians.
Lekberg’s vocals also dwell on several different planes, depending on what he’s saying. All of the vocalization can and must be described as “aggressive”, but there is a wide range of expression within that categorization. Some is clean vocalization, some seemingly spoken (or shouted), and some growled in the finest tradition of Metal. But none of the vocal choices are gratuitous. All are employed where they’re employed because the story being expressed in that moment cannot be expressed any other way.
As the music goes, so go the lyrics of the songs. The title song is steeped in battle cries, including the haunting chorus “Your corpse, my ladder” and “If I go, I remember – I was born ready to die!” But these outcries aren’t naïve. They’re the by-product of tough experience. Pain and failure are acknowledged as part of the process (cf. “And if I never felt this pain, I’d have no proof I’m even alive” from “Not Dead Yet”), as is the loneliness and difficulty of seeking inspiration from heroes (cf. “The stars always feel so close, I can smell their fear of falling” from “Mission to Mars”). Even a song as apparently hopeless as “Last Breath”, inspired by the untimely death of Harry Dully (“My life landmarked by unwarranted pain… Your name etched in stone too soon”) takes its rightful place in this journey through degradation to empowerment.
“Of the Most Magnificent” derives from Jason Lekberg’s roots. The name comes from the title of a book of his step-grandfather’s, who wrote semi-autobiographically and from a religious point of view. Jason follows a very different path, and the song addresses defiance of the world and exaltation of the Self, but in what he demands to be a better, more evolved way. Musically, the song explores another aspect of the IKILLYA bi-lateral compositional structure described above in the songs “Not Dead yet” and “Jekyll Better Hyde”: here, the percussion provides the continuous discernible thread of the song, providing the listener with the aural vantage point to follow the free-form sputtering stutters of the guitar and bass.
Redefining the past roots for the present reality and the reclamation of one’s own body and spirit from one’s ancestors is a recurring theme throughout Vae Victis (cf. “You, your memory, I will eradicate… It’s my life, and I will, control my destiny” from the song with the double-edged title “Bear Your Name,” which continues “But I will bear it better than you.”).
There is anger at the waste of human potential everywhere, anger at the futility of so much of working-class life (“We roam the streets with cops and criminals… Which one ya wanna be tonight?” from “Driven”), at how many hurdles have had to be overcome and how many continue to reappear relentlessly (“Thinking back I can't remember a time when this pain did not define me” from “Exhortation”). The enemy takes countless forms but, in these songs, never appears disguised in fantastical projections. “Jekyll Better Hyde” explains where this enemy is often – and most dangerously – to be found: the greatest battle is internal, and IKILLYA are ready to declare this frankly without hiding behind arcane imagery of dragons and wizards. The point is to represent rage and struggle in an innovative, authentic way in both music and words. They must both be heavy – but true. There will be no “Explicit” stickers on Vae Victis. The urgency of the struggle and the volatility of the issues at stake demand a higher degree of articulation and intelligence rather than the language or effects that pass as shocking in the schoolyard. If a fan were to tell Lekberg that these songs were empowering and resulted in making better choices in his or her own life, Jason would celebrate that as a huge victory, unabashedly and without irony. Truth and emotional honesty are presented as the real core of Metal.
Guitarist Eric Jackson, who identifies as a radical and militant skeptic, concurs. He believes that the core of heavy music is honesty, bearing a vibrant message of strength and determination. The anger of the music is blatant because it’s better to face it than to repress it, but the band is angry for you, not at you. We dwell in this struggle together. Bassist Mariel Miele sees her instrument as an exercise in collaboration, even – and especially – when dealing with internal issues such as frustration and rage. All members of the band see people as responsible for their own destinies: The rage of IKILLYA’S music is a cry of solidarity for others struggling to survive; the intensity of the songs is a strong arm held out in support of fellow warriors; the gift being offered is hope.
To hear the band speak about their work on their latest album opens countless possibilities: they might theoretically be speaking of social or personal psychology. Such an assumption would be an error. It’s all about music. Eric Jackson found himself pulled toward the extreme feel of IKILLYA’s music because of the intensity of his inner battle with the issues represented there. But he now understands it was always the music – not the fripperies of the “scene” – he was looking for. Mariel Miele says playing heavy music is not an option – she has to do it, like scratching an itch. Her goal (for herself, for the audience) is catharsis. And she also rejects many of the distractions of the music scene, noting that wanting fame or money will not be enough to give someone the necessary dedication to play in a band such as this: there has to be an actual inner need.
Jason Lekberg expands on that need: it is a need to create something out of nothing. The end product may be fulfilling but the process is essential. And it is music where this process happens for him, because it is all-consuming and universal. It is the most resonant outlet for someone who may have contempt for individuals but a love for humanity. And if there is rage from the past, there is also gratitude – and the purest way to pay it forward, he insists, is with music… this music.