Photo: Jon Donnell
MIXING IT UP Huak.
Huak are the rare local band who, in the two-plus years they've been playing regular gigs, sound bolder and more self-possessed every time you see them. Beginning as a scrappy but ambitious post-punk band with penchants for anti-establishment poetry and abrupt shifts in time signature, the four-piece, led by 22-year-old vocalist/guitarist Jake Lowry, continue to hone a sound that's rooted in the lean, ethical aesthetics of Mission of Burma but increasingly open to sprawling sentiments and rowdy harmonies. In concert, Huak have become Portland's most viscerally satisfying indie-rock group since Cult Maze's heyday three years ago.
Huak play a benefit for the Picnic Music & Arts Festival at SPACE Gallery on August 29, a year to the day after RattleSnakes drummer Mike Cunnane publicly debuted with the band. Cunnane, at 27 the oldest member of the band (Joel Glidden — playing guitar, vocals, and drum machine — is 22 and bassist Stefan Hanson is 20), has played an integral part to the band's increasing might, giving their switchback transitions some extra pop and, as he does in the RattleSnakes, assuring his freewheeling guitarists don't wander too far.
His participation elevates the band's second EP, Secret Trees (Peapod Recordings), but the rest of the band has clearly stepped up their game since last year's Trajectory (also on Peapod) as well. The instrumental title track, experimental by the band's standards, sounds like a Chad VanGaalen interlude: Glidden offers up a simple, plush drum-machine beat (something you hope he'll start doing more of) and looped, oscillating feedback for Hanson and Lowry's guitars to coil around. With a minute to go the song becomes an impromptu noise-rock anthem, with a rollicking backbeat and riffs that squeal like strangled birds.
Elsewhere, the band hit on an array of punk, indie, and post-punk touchstones. On the stuffed "Stats and Demographics," the opening chords are spring-loaded like a ferociously danceable cross between mid-aughts dancepunk and any rambunctious Pixies cut. The vocals and lyrics are pure political punk: Cunnane and Glidden, singing backup, shout out numbers before Lowry, in a speak-sing reminiscent of '90s DC punk, decries the mock empathy ("With their words, a certain gravity of rhetoric") of the electoral process. "Sleep Debt" shoots out riffs left and right like Spider-Man for two minutes and settles briefly (always briefly) into a depressive, Sunny Day Real Estate-era emo lament, "We are incapable of paying back our loans/The crushing silence of hung-up telephones." Throughout, Lowry expresses his biting sarcasm with a subtle, resonant sense of longing.
Despite their political bent, Huak don't feel beholden to the mold of a militant punk band, or any cookie-cutter classification. (Even their mixer/masterer, Ron Harrity — who has a seemingly exhaustive knowledge of the last generation of underground rock — admitted "they're hard for me to describe in some ways," before rattling off some bands I am unfamiliar with.) If the bulk of their obvious influences (to which Cunnane adds Q and Not U, Fugazi, Deerhoof, Slint, Can, and Shellac as "the ones we can agree on") bespeak aggression and math/prog ambitions, Lowry's poetic lyrics and often-soothing tone sand down that edge ever so slightly, yielding something brawny but brainy, even sensitive.