GRITTY BLISS "I don't know what it is, but I need to make a lot of noise on stage," says Jen Johnson of Velah. "It never has to be pretty."
Last year was many things for many people, but 2011 as a whole just wasn't much fun for former Static of the Gods vocalist/guitarist Jen Johnson. Three personal setbacks clouded the classically trained vocalist's year: her mother suffered a brain aneurysm shortly after Mother's Day; her grandfather passed away; and in October, her band of the past five years — and the only one she's ever called her own — suddenly imploded.
Genre-defying rock trio Static of the Gods had just wrapped up a four-date East Coast tour with AM & Shawn Lee, and returned to Boston running on empty. Johnson, in particular, had hit a wall, emotionally and creatively, after spending much of the year back home in Stockton, California, tending to her mother's gradual recovery. "The feeling was mutual, the switch just flipped," Johnson says by phone. "It was time to be done, and it all happened really fast."
A thunderous trio with a sound much larger than their individual parts, Static of the Gods left behind many things: two critically lauded full-lengths (2007's Cycles Follow Signs and 2010's Knowledge Machine), two over-stuffed EPs (Peluche in 2010 and last year's The Midnight Fires), and a messy trail of media ink from journalists and bloggers trying to aptly describe an expansive sound that was essentially simple pop saccharine wrapped in overlapping layers of shoegaze, reverb, and ambient noise.
There was no farewell show, no grand finale. Static of the Gods played the Rock 'n' Roll Rumble in April, then released The Midnight Fires the following month, enlisting a host of Boston musicians to fill in for Johnson while she was on the West Coast. "That caused a lot of stress for everybody," she admits.
By year's end, Johnson had wiped her musical slate clean. Once enrolled in Cambridge's Longy School of Music to study classical composition, her commanding voice in Static of the Gods always wrestled, in harmony, with the blazing onrush of sounds from drummer (and husband) Mike Latulippe and bassist Ben Voskeritchian. "I don't know what it is, but I need to make a lot of noise on stage," Johnson says. "It never has to be pretty."
In December, a late-night acoustic jam session with the Acre's Nick Murphy unexpectedly relit the creative spark. Latulippe joined in on drums and Murphy's bandmate in the Acre, multi-instrumentalist Danny McNair, came on board to round out the fledgling pop quartet they named Velah. "The four of us got together a couple of times, and in a few practices already had three songs," Johnson says. "It was a lot more flexible, more textured . . . more about setting moods, setting scenes. But this band has a doppelganger — in an alternate universe Velah would be a noise band."
That alternative universe isn't so far. Standout jam "Wanderlust" is a shimmering post-punk romper fit for underground radio, while "Glass Heart" carries a slow-building, atmospheric roll into blissed-out rock fervor. "Calm Down" is a prickly, but confident, alt-rock number with Murphy taking the vocal lead, a move Johnson welcomed after providing the sole voice in Static of the Gods.