by Tom Alexander (@___alexd)
It starts with a convocation – a rat-a-tat-tat snare drum and a booming sliding bass riff. The first few seconds of Drahla’s debut album, Useless Coordinates, is equal parts a band performing a black magic ritual and a band leading you, the listener, into battle. In either case, there’s a sense of building anxiety about the unknown: what’s on the other side? This opening to “Gilded Cloud” is a brief moment, but it speaks volumes about the rest of Useless Coordinates. After these short periods of uncertainty, Drahla launches into song structures that only resemble conventional approaches, often moving in an instinctive, and ultimately intuitive, direction. As the album title suggests, you might have a map – a sheet of paper with directions on it - but you won’t need it here.
A trio from Leeds, Drahla have built up a reputation for their energetic live shows. Playing alongside METZ, Menace Beach, and Ought, the band shares some musical landmarks with all of those bands, but particularly with Ought. Drahla, in many ways, feels like a dark, shattered mirror of Ought – similar focus on rhythm, wiry guitars, and vocals that are more spoken-word than croon. Rob Riggs’ aggressive bass lines are the dark engines powering Useless Coordinates. Those lines are so dominant, they allow the rest of the band, including drummer Mike Ainsley, to be selective about when (and how) to jump into a song. Take “Stimulus for Living,” the album’s lead single, for example. When the chorus hits, singer and vocalist Luciel Brown jumps in and out with a stray guitar riff and a simple, catchy repeated sentence. This is where the real brilliance of Useless Coordinates comes in: there’s a feeling that something should be there, taking up that space, but instead Drahla just let the song play on for measure or two longer than you’d expect without vocals or guitar. The band use that feeling – that sense that you are not where you thought you were – to both build and release tension in surprising ways.
Useless Coordinates is so sure-handed that you may not immediately realize the first time a saxophone joins into the muscular ensemble. First entering at the end of the second track, “Serenity,” Chris Duffin’s gnarled saxophone riffs are used cleverly throughout the album. Sometimes these sax runs are used to provide an uneasy sense of atmosphere (“Stimulus for Living,” “Serotonin Level”), but on others, it is pushed to the forefront, like on the explosive improvisations of “React/Revolt”. If Brown and Riggs’ contributions are confidently stable, Duffin’s sax gives the listener just enough latitude to feel like the whole thing just may go careening out of control. It’s the wild-card; an introduced element of controlled chaos. These kind of sure, measured choices are really impressive on any record, let alone a debut. Drahla’s manipulation of the listener throughout Useless Coordinates is an exciting act of art-rock guidance. They have you right where they want you.
Oh, and if you know of any other post-punk songs about the merging of ancient Egypt and the Bronze Age of technology, let us know because “Pyramid Estate” is fantastic.