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Mortar Combat

Yukon Consults Math Rock, Noise Jazz, And Hardcore On Its Way To Songwriting Problem Solving

Sam Holden
HEY, THATíS NOT NICE: Yukon acts up in its typically precise, clean-cut way.

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By Jared T. Fischer | Posted 1/31/2007

Standing in front of Charm City Space under a navy-blue sky that hesitates to rain, and dressed in early-'90s Seattle-approved flannels, white undershirts, and jeans, the four members of Yukon all agree that they enjoy a challenge.

"The way we work together, we never just go for what is entirely comfortable," guitarist/vocalist Denny Bowen says. "I get bored really easily. So if I was playing just power chords the entire time, I'd probably not be in this band."

Mortar, recently released by Towson's Terra Firma Records, is Yukon's alchemical eight-song debut. The crisp drums, thick guitars, fluid bass, and belted vocals easily transform a pair of iPod headphones into the kind of raucous live show that the quartet regularly puts on at places like Charm City Space. With a sensibility made of equal parts jazz, hardcore, and math rock, the album's twining melodies and rhythms take risks in reinventing the ways a rock song can be strung together. Its refusal to become too familiar is what keeps listening to Mortar fun.

"I'm pretty much a terrible rock drummer," classically trained percussionist Nick Podgurski says, somewhat self-deprecatingly. In truth, his interest in multiple genres and styles--and his frenzied transitions from brisk jazz on his cymbals and snares to muscular, pounding hardcore--has been a driving force in Yukon's songwriting since the band's inception in the summer of 2004.

"I think a lot of times what ends up happening is, well, not really happy accidents, but that we'll all have different ideas of stuff that we can do, and then we somehow assemble a way of making it all fit," Podgurski laughs. "It's like problem solving."

Sam Garrett, an 18-year-old who also performs solo guitar pyrotechnics as Hex Screw, did not play on Mortar, but last summer he replaced guitarist Tom Ferrara, who quit to avoid touring. (Yukon plans on touring the East Coast this winter with the band Calabi Wau; it also is scheduled to play at the three-day International Noise Conference in Miami in February.) The band's yet-to-be-recorded new songs reflect the change in guitarist, with a move away from the distorted attacks of Mortar to a cleaner sound where each instrument can be more clearly heard.

"Playing in Yukon is challenging," Garrett says. "Whereas every other band I've been in has been a tedious process of working to produce [a final product] . . . I've found a group of people I can actually be challenged by but also contribute something to."

The underlying sonic punch felt throughout Yukon's records and performances is largely the work of bassist Brad Smith, who began rocking out in the late '90s as a member of Turkish Taffy. Smith claims to be the least technical member of the band, but his nimble picking stays abreast of any of Bowen or Podgurski's odd time changes. "My bass sound's mainly a product of the amp that I have," Smith says. "I just turn the Nemesis on and let it go. I just work with what I have."

Yukon recorded Mortar in an old warehouse space downtown called Archival Arts, where fellow Baltimore band Double Dagger had previously recorded. "Bruce [Willen] of Double Dagger was in the process of turning it into a loft art space when he found out that it was going to get demolished and turned into condos," Bowen explains.

"We were only in there for two days," Smith says. "And since it takes us maybe two months to write one song, it really wasn't an option to write something in the studio."

The band went in fully prepared, and the tightness of songs like "Ribosome" and "Legsick" is one of their major charms. The album's second track, "Consolation Enterprise," drills into the ear with churning bass and discordant, ascending guitars, reaching a Helmet heaviness. "Wall" is the least math-rock track on the album, with repetitive melodic arpeggios and hyperstrummed chords calling to mind Sonic Youth or Polvo. Throughout, Bowen's slightly muted shouts add an enraged quality to the music even when it's hard to make out specific lyrics, whether they're about getting sick ("Legsick"), a pedestrian's encounter with traffic ("Pedestrian"), or even the band's place of origin, Perry Hall in Baltimore County.

"The vocals are definitely secondary to the music," Smith says. "We don't even practice with vocals, so when we hear the vocals at the show that's the first time we're hearing them."

"It's just physically hard to do vocals over some of the stuff we're doing," Bowen says. "I've been trying more, and I hope to do more thought out stuff with some of the songs we're writing now, because the writing process has become a lot easier."

"I'm definitely glad they're there," Podgurski says. "Because I think our stuff without the vocals would definitely lack something. It's kind of a textural thing, and I like it that way versus [the lyrics] being this important message."

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