Exhausting Fire, the seventh album from Georgia’s Kylesa, is surprisingly flexible – though that may not be a good thing. I found I could bend its mild sludge sounds to fit anywhere into my day. At first listen, I thought the album required headphones, so the space between my ears was treated to the pleasant fuzzy depths in which they’ve mired each song. A few listens later and I was cranking it as loud as I had their older albums in trying to maximize the few riff-tastic dive-bombs. After that, I had it going at barely above a whisper, firmly colouring the background. Regardless of the volume, the title’s accurate: this is an album of Kylesa mellowing out as well as leveling out their formula. They’ve departed from their crash n’ bash sludge style as well as the flirtations with grunge, in effect lightening up their whole approach to give the melody of the song weight, rather than focus on riffs. The results are occasionally catchy, slightly sludgy, undoubtedly Kylesa, but rarely compelling.
The first track “Crusher” establishes the template for Exhausting Fire and also the reason that the songs work when they do. Instead of the sky-wide riff fests of past albums that reworked Southern blues through a punk attitude, you get shoved under a thick blanket of warming feedback and tripped-out vocals. This means that the songs sound deep, but are really supposed to be taken at face value for their melodies or the vocal-driven chorus. When this method works well, as with “Crusher” or “Shaping the Southern Sky”, you’re treated to a backwash of guitars with just a bit of bite, some propulsive drumming that clatters along underneath, and (usually) Laura Pleasants singing-shouting her way into a couplet of a chorus. It’s a nice enough sound, though it’s insufficient to hold your attention completely.
An unfortunate aspect of having all this fuzz is that nothing really stands out, which makes the album more of an experience and less of a performance. When Kylesa do come up for air, it isn’t always successful, particularly when the vocals are brought to the front; they sound forced and awkward. My case in point would be “Night Drive”, which moves Philip Cope’s grating voice to center stage. He sounds fine when buried in the mix, and I haven’t had a problem with his singing style in the past, but any time he raises his voice on Exhausting Fire, it comes off as caterwauling, and even worse, like some pretentious new wave that’s annoying for art’s sake.
For better or worse, Kylesa have ended up in shoegaze/dreampop territory with this psychedelic-tinged sound that they’ve been working towards for years. In this regard, the album’s title is accurate. The fiery delivery of their first few albums has burned down to smoldering embers. Exhausting Fire is easy to cozy up to, but it won’t provide enough heat to get your blood moving.