By Eleni P.Austin
Even as a kid, Kyle Nicolaides was obsessed with music. Growing up in the quiet coastal town of Santa Barbara, he was encouraged to nurture his precocious and prodigious talent.
He began forming bands at age 14. The Rockabyes, The Cosmic Revelators and The Martyrs didn’t last long, but they enabled Nicolaides to sort through his musical growing pains.
Nicolaides haunted open-mike nights at clubs like Muddy Waters Café and Jensen’s Main Stage. After school, he set up home recording sessions, manning the drums, piano, guitar and bass himself.
By the time Nicolaides began attending USC in Los Angeles, it seemed like his musical ambitions were coming to fruition. He met drummer Tony Cupito after a solo gig in downtown L.A. Then the duo connected with bassist Daniel Curcio on a whim. (Originally from Philadelphia, Curcio was just winding up an extended visit with a long-lost older brother in Santa Monica when they met.) It felt like fate.
Steering clear of the L.A. hipster scene, the three hunkered down, woodshedding and bonding over disparate influences like the Beatles, Fiona Apple, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Jazz bassists Marcus Miller and Stanley Clarke and obscure singer-songwriter Judee Sill.
The nascent trio settled on a name, Beware Of Darkness, (coincidently an excellent solo track from the Beatles’ “quiet one,” George Harrison.) They were immediately signed to Bright Antenna Records. The San Francisco label boasts an eclectic roster that includes Liverpudlian rockers the Wombats and British synth-pop pioneers Orchestral Manoevres In The Dark.
Orthodox is their debut. The album opens with the careening cri de Coeur of “Howl.” The song is anchored by slashing power chords and shifting time signatures. Nicolaides’ vocals alternate between a yowl and a lazy drawl. The lyrics offer sex as the ultimate panacea to loneliness.
As though someone has flipped the radio dial, “Sweet Girl” comes blasting out of the speakers even before the final notes of “Howl” recede. The crunchy melody is impossibly catchy.
Blistering guitar riffs shimmy and spiral as bass and drums lock into a snake-hipped groove. The lyrics offer a crash course in teenage heartbreak… “I wish I was a surgeon, so I could rip your heart right open/And I could find the spot which broke me, and I would tear it out.” A sticky sweet guitar solo leavens the casual misogyny of Nicolaides’ words.
Four tracks, “Ghost Town” “Amen Amen,” “Morning Tea” and “Life On Earth?”display the more introspective side of the band. “Ghost Town” opens with ominous cello notes that slide into a spectral melody. The lyrics are suitably sepulchral..”I feel my end is coming now, I walk alone inside this Ghost Town.”
Nicolaides’ idiosyncratic vocals partner with churchy electric piano runs on “Amen Amen.” The drums kick in and the melody locks into a waltz-time rhythm that is both jazzy and spatial. A soaring guitar solo recalls the taut, economical work of 70s guitar god, Peter Frampton.
On the surface, the lyrics are on homage to his lady’s unwavering support. Still, Nicolaides manages to slip in a gloomy couplet, (even as he’s slyly referencing a classic Bacharach/David fillip) “Sometimes when I wake up, and I watch you put on make-up/I forget you’re gonna die.”
“Morning Tea” is a super downer, (but in a good way!) Funereal piano chords are layered over downcast electric piano fills. Dead mother, missing girlfriend, no one bringing him tea! It’s morose and melodic at the same time with thrumming bass lines and crashing percussion. A pin-wheeling guitar solo sets off sparks, cutting through the emotional morass.
Finally, “Life On Earth?” Seems like a worthy sequel to David Bowie’s “Life On Mars?” A sweeping piano ballad that offers wry observations on everything from teenage ennui to the country’s divisive political climate… “Party ties over human life, let profits rise while people die/And if you cannot cope, avoid the truth hang a noose with television, entertainment, drugs and alcohol/Is this all there is to life on earth?” It’s simply a beautiful song.
Orthodox boomerangs between quiet, introspective tracks and balls-out rockers. “Heart Attack (Bang Bang Shake)” kicks out the jams. The melody and instrumentation are a study in calibrated chaos. A frenetic, whiplash beat ratchets up the tension. Fizzy guitar riffs almost distract from Nicolaides’ scabrous, dismissive tone as he spits out callous lyrics that shift between misanthropy and self-loathing.
Both “It’s The End Of The World” and “My Planet Is Dead” present post-apocalyptic tableaus. The former displays a grandeur usually reserved for Rock Operas or Queen songs! The meter pivots between raucous and reflective. Clangorous piano notes collide with coruscated guitar riffs. Nicolaides sketches out a bleak scenario…“Genuflect and load your gun, you can do anything if it’s for god/Resist the change any way you can, be afraid of what you don’t understand, lock your doors and hide in fear ‘cos the culture bomb is here.”
The latter is more shambolic. Ramshackle acoustic riffs swivel from bluesy to Glam-tastic. Dense and detailed lyrics paint a bleak picture of “end times.”
Other stand out tracks include: “All That Remains,” a minor key charmer that is both anthemic and intimate. Nicolaides ethereal vocals take centerstage on “Salvation Is Here.” Overdubbed, phased guitars attack and retreat. From Nicolaides’ perspective, Heaven doesn’t seem so bitchin’ ….”Emptiness is here, everyone is numb with content/So sit, smile, pose, relax or eternal rest.”
The album closes with “Hummingbird.” Slightly echoing the pastoral grace of the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” the song blends delicate acoustic arpeggios with lyrics that are ephemeral and spiritual.
Beware Of Darkness has crafted nearly flawless debut. Orthodox is anything but. Ambitious, slightly pretentious, but never over-reaching. The listener hears glimmers of the band’s influences, but that never obscures their singular vision.
Beware Of Darkness has created a rich sonic landscape. This is an album that should be in every collection. Once you’ve heard it, you won’t know how you did without it.