Photos by Isabel Fajardo
In 2018, it’s a foregone conclusion that listeners can absorb multiple genres. Labeling standards that existed for the alternative rock era haven’t translated to the web-worn indie kids. Putting “post” at the beginning of the genre doesn’t work either, since few were convinced that To Pimp a Butterfly had earned the title of “post-rap.” Anyway, this is hardly bad news. There’s a theory that bimusical people engage their brains in a similar way as bilingual people, which makes a case for the authority in millennial taste. It appears that we can use an open mind in the music we listen to as well as the people we engage with.
Minnesota “rock quartet” Straya have a preternatural understanding of this phenomenon. It helps when you have two very different singers trading duties and a classically trained rhythm section at your disposal, but they deserve the credit no less. It’s almost foolish to try and list all the genres at play across Sobereyed’s 60 minutes. It has to be experienced, not just described. The band employ guest vocals, cornet solos, and a stellar production team, smartly surrounding themselves with players that also couldn’t care less about which genre is at play.
The results of this show themselves across the length of Sobereyed and within each song. Although their 2016 EP I Don’t Know What Anyone Is Talking About Anymore sounded wonderful, its 2 tracks suffered from being 180 degrees apart. Not so on Sobereyed. “Acoustic Song (for rock quartet and fixed media)” contains working transitions between krautrock, minimalism, and folk. The waveform alone is a thing of beauty, with brief peaks that break up the wind chime drone and, eventually, a veritable pop tune towards the end. The acoustic guitar is washed out by arrhythmic drumming and hazy sound collages. Featuring some of the album’s only discernible lyrics from Sanjeev Mishra, it’s a necessary palette cleanser for the rest of the records teeth.
“Leach” operates similarly, but in a violent context. Toby Ramaswamy’s hemiola drum pattern and Mishra’s pained screams pollinate the tracks first act. Under an atmosphere of razor-sharp synths and distortion, the song serves as a reminder of the screamo proclivities of the Twin Cities DIY scene which birthed a then college-aged Straya. Similar to Pile or Deafheaven, the band only employ aggression when artistically necessary. They don’t scream or use drones just because they can. They use them in service of the album’s arc.
In the wake of its immensely rewarding instrumentals, Sobereyed sadly lacks a lyrical narrative. With so many vocalists and styles at play, it’s hard to know what the band are talking about. Closing track “K.” seeks to wrap up the themes anyway, piecing together the album's other track titles to tell a story about wishing someone would shut up. “Your knowledge is no credential here/Your tongue is nothing,” wails guitarist Cody Nelson.
This expressionist doctrine, albeit puzzling, is also a positive. It’s possible Straya didn’t want to impart a specific tale. The more important takeaway here is the band’s insistence that its litany of elements and production ideas can work succinctly together. In an almost magical way, Sobereyed bursts open like a Pandora’s Box of flavors. “Timid” appears at first as only a slight furtherance of the band’s pseudo-emo early tracks, but quickly morphs into something more serious and visceral. Much of the humor from 2015’s Healthy Steps is absent, but there’s good reason why.
As it were, the record is more healing than it is a description of our despicable political landscape. Sobereyed is a purgatory between the seriousness of culture abuse and daily life. Yes, the drumbeats get aggressive on “Timid,” but they take several minutes to coerce you into the record before they hit. Many tracks share these inviting qualities, making Sobereyed a lived-in world. Whether you’re swirling around in the jazz cacophony of “A Laugh” or reading deep into the monologue on “K.,” this is a record that’s unflinching in its ability to pull you in and keep you there.
There’s a paradoxical relationship between the record’s front and back halves. “Timid” and “Leach” each set the tone for their particular sections, similar to Radiohead’s use of “Everything In Its Right Place” and “Optimistic” on Kid A. Sobereyed’s front half is just that - a sober and mostly instrumental chunk of four sound experiments made possible in part by multi-instrumentalist Mark Engelmann, who tacks an academic edge onto the rest of the bands more urgent components. The back half has more “rock” songs and more lyrics even though duties are split between three different singers across its 30 minutes.
This record’s compact character can’t be understated. All music seeks to tell a story to some extent, but Straya stand apart. There’s not an exposition or external narrative distracting the listener from what’s on display. Everything takes place within its run time. Recorded over the course of much of 2017 and smartly gracing the scene during Minnesota’s bitter Winter (take note, Justin Vernon), it looks like a scene of a Minneapolis national park during the colder months: serene and peaceful from afar like the cool breeze on “Acoustic Song,” but harsh and chilling when viewed up close during the mid-section of “K.”’s metal influence.
Sobereyed ends abruptly in the middle of a Fender rhodes riff. It’s not as if the band had run out of ideas as much as that the record had said its piece. The elements bumped together in the furnace of “Leach,” and took their quantum journey to a larger landscape in which the micro and macro of album world-building each had their turns. Nothing is left to be said. Verbal descriptors are dwarfed in the wake of Straya’s voluminous second record, one that proves that the band understand the rules of genre while simultaneously shattering them all.