by Jordan Green
“Teeth of the Arctic Storm,” the song that ends Irata’s new album Sweet Loris, is an apt metaphor for the Greensboro band’s grueling but awe-inspiring journey into a harsh yet exhilarating sonic frontier, if for no other reason than its title.
The seven songs that make up the album, most of which clock in around five or six minutes, bring to mind an expeditionary team trudging across a bleak and frigid landscape, moving forward despite periodic episodes of dementia and frostbite, making do with unevenly matched temperaments and personality quirks, and even sustaining occasional casualties but regrouping and returning to the task.
The crew that now stands poised to conquer came about through a painstaking evolution after the departure of the trio’s first guitarist, with bassist Jon Case and drummer Jason Ward deciding they wanted to add vocals to what was initially an instrumental outfit. The addition of guitarist Cheryl Manner strengthened and reinvigorated Irata as a tested and durable outfit. After the trio returned from touring behind their 2012 EP Vultures — comprised of material written prior to Manner’s enlistment — they slowly began assembling material for Sweet Loris. In what should have been a triumphal moment, the band had to cancel several tour dates in October at the time of the album release when Ward was hospitalized with an infection stemming from a broken collarbone. And in January, the band’s Greensboro album release party had to be postponed by a week due to a snowstorm.
After the departure of their first guitarist, Ward and Case were determined to add vocals and make their sound edgier. They went through a number of guitarists before they found Manner.
“We were pretty lost,” Ward admitted after the band’s rescheduled album release party in Greensboro. Neither of the two original members were particularly enamored with their vocals, but they taught themselves to sing. In some cases, the vocals evolved from just humming over instrumental riffs until actual lyrics took form.
“We just toughed it out over a whole summer,” Ward recalled.
Meanwhile, Manner had been looking for a band without much success. She had placed an ad on Craigslist, and Case responded.
“She didn’t think we were going to be compatible musically,” Case said. “She was a little more metal than us. I said, ‘Come out anyway.’”
Manner didn’t think the audition went particularly well because she felt nervous. Case and Ward told her she would need a bigger amp.
“I’d been looking for a band to play with,” she said. “People would say, ‘We really like your playing, but we don’t want a girl in the band.’”
Case interrupted her: “We thought it was cool to have a girl in the band.”
“They were really nice,” Manner continued. “They weren’t as weird as they are now.”
Case’s vocals, a guttural instrument that modulates from a stoic growl to a hair-raising scream, was a selling point for Manner.
“I heard his voice with the music,” she recalled, “and I said to myself: ‘I can understand what they’re doing.’”
Irata’s songs typically build from Case’s bass riffs. Case’s playing provides a disciplinary counterpoint to Ward’s full-body assault on the drums, which oscillates between no-holds-barred pounding and machine-gun fills.
Manner’s fluid guitar playing harnesses the ferocity of classic Zeppelin and Sabbath-era metal, occasionally adding ambient flourishes and trilling lines of melody. Aided by overdrive and wah-wah, some of her solos suggest a hornet pumped on steroids going in for a kill.
Irata’s new album was released on Retro Futurist Records, the label of the Savannah, Ga. indie-stoner-sludge band Kylesa. Phillip Cope of Kylesa produced Sweet Loris at the Jam Room Recording Studio in Columbia, SC, and Irata was touring with Kylesa when they were forced to cancel because of Ward’s health troubles. Irata is scheduled to tour with at least two other Retro Futurist acts, Caustic Casanova and Niche, later this year.
It’s easy to mislabel the music Irata, Kylesa and their fellow travelers make as metal, although there are elements of that genre, along with hard rock, punk, psychedelia and shoegaze. Whatever the characteristics of their respective sounds, neither band would take kindly to any expectation of stylistic orthodoxy.
For their rescheduled Greensboro release party on Jan. 30, Irata headlined a stellar bill that included avant-shamanistic guitar-and-drums duo the Bronzed Chorus, veteran punkers Totally Slow and the ambient-math outfit Black Squares/White Islands. Suffused with an atmosphere of bonhomie and mutual support, the show took place at a commercial establishment whose identity the proprietor asked to remain undisclosed because it’s possible the show might have run afoul of city ordinance.
From the beginning of Irata’s set, Manner displayed a stage presence that was nothing short of charismatic, whipping her cascading curls as she bore down her solos and mouthing the lyrics of the songs as the stock-still Case growled them into his mic and Ward drove himself to exhaustion on the drums.
Ward expressed pride that each band on the bill was “from right here in Greensboro.” When Irata concluded its ecstatically received encore and every ounce of energy seemed wrung out of the audience, it was the band that was giving thanks.
“Let’s give it up for all the bands tonight,” Ward said, as he and Manner clapped.