Long live AWAAS

It's Great Dying
By NICK SCHROEDER  |  August 21, 2014

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It’ll take a break-up to realize it, but the city is going to miss AWAAS, who experimented in more subgenres and played with more intensity and conviction than most artists do over several-decade careers. As is often the case with those you have to see to believe, their biography is a hard one to write; as a final statement, It’s Great Dying is fittingly hard to pin down. Its hybrid of metal, post-rock, and electronica plays like a desultory collection of ideas—at turns devotional and obsessive; excellent and experimental.

While starting as a minimalist guitar-and-drums duo, in recent years AWAAS has swelled into a four-piece (five if you count sometimes-vocalist Bridgette Isabella Semler), so it’s strange that the 12-track, one-hour-long swansong It’s Great Dying feels more than ever like a solo project of frontman Zack Howard. Two of its first three songs make this clear, inviting the listener to burrow into hypnotic twirls of delirious, often tediously murky electronica.

It’s rock where they work best. For all their incantations and insurrectional rhetoric, AWAAS’ politics have always been a little incoherent. But it hardly matters—in a world where Imagine Dragons sounding kinda like Fugazi is just about the closest mainstream rock gets to subversive content, then a post-punk band getting muddy with political aesthetics is hardly a crime. While their first EP contained lines that seemed like calls for genuine resistance against organized oppression, the bulk of It’s Great Dying succumbs to the seductions of love, the self, and their infinite reflections and rabbit-holes.

The writing is still good, but a lot of its significance is irretrievable within Howard’s psychological weeds. In the band’s early days, Howard would routinely inquire between songs if the audience could hear his words; now, lines like “I am your abyss / we are big fun / standing on the shoulders / of forgetfulness” are barely discernible behind the walls of vocal effects and guitar histrionics. It’s fine, but it’d be a stretch to say AWAAS are the outwardly political band they once were.

Thankfully, the band they’ve become—or bands, you might say—are often really good, and still plenty meaningful. Newcomers Noah Defilippis and Sean Hadley, on synths and bass, add dimensions to the sound that the previous incarnation could never approach. It’s to their credit that AWAAS leverage it in several different directions, from the witch-house act on “Diamond Bullet,” a Mogwai-ish post-rock march on “Big Fun,” the chilly shoegaze beauty of “Instrumental IV,” and at their most compellingly powerful on tracks like the monolithic “No Metaphor,” which fuses all in a sustained, six-minute flourish. It’s one of many songs that, in a world not too far off, AWAAS might be playing in front of thousands in an arena. Instead, the band will play out the last moments of their life like thousands in Maine folklore before them: on a boat, far off at sea, shouting desperately at a world that too seldom bothered to listen.

IT’S GREAT DYING | Released by AWAAS | with Mount Sharp + Dream Reaper + Mouth Washington | Aug 24 | Casablanca Cruises, 18 Custom House Wharf, Portland | $12 | 207.831.1324

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