As a music critic, it's a given that I see a shitload of local bands. I also see a lot of bad local bands, or at least ones that could really use some adjustments. Even talented acts around town bore the hell out of me if I see them a few times and their music hasn't evolved.
The sort of bands that I like the best and am most impressed by are bands like the Mars Volta, the Good Life, and Bright Eyes, whose album content progresses and develops into something new with each release. I don't see that a lot in the local scene. I see bands trying to perfect one certain thing and not really reaching any further than that. That's not a horrible thing Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers have built a huge audience by doing their one thing but it's pretty boring to me.
But one band that has impressed me recently with its development is the group formerly known as We Fly Our Kites at Night, which is now called Hellas Mounds (the only lineup change being a different bass player). I dug the Kites a lot they played punk rock spazzcore that the kids could dance to. Vocalist Marcus LaBonte would flail around shirtless through the audience, sometimes not even bothering with the microphone as he screamed.
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But Hellas Mounds is an entirely different entity. "We're not punk rock," Marcus tells me as he, guitarists Greg Colson and Justin Michael, and I sit around hungover on Easter morning discussing the transition. The new incarnation is still high volume, but it's slowed down, drawn out, serious stoner rock that draws comparisons to bands as diverse as Slint, Isis, Mogwai, and Godspeed You Black Emperor.
Hellas Mounds is the most exciting shit I've seen recently (the band's played a mere two shows), because it's the culmination of a group of youngsters growing up musically, and watching the development is half of the enjoyment for me.
The band has always been experimental. They'd begun to explore the slower-but-still-loud direction as early as last summer. Around that time, though, they lost a close friend who was supposed to tour with them, and their artistic focus became more somber. After the tour, the Kites' bassist left the band to concentrate on school, and it was time for a change.
"When he left, amongst all the things happening, and another close friend dying, our hearts have been wanting to play more serious music," Greg says. "Not necessarily sadder, but we're not feeling like jumping all over the place [and] screaming, acting crazy. It's more organic now. It's more our feelings."
The new name reflects the band's seriousness. Though the name may sound like gibberish, Hellas Mounds are rock formations on Mars found near the Hellas basin. The band's first single is called "The Last Ferry to Cydonia," a reference to the region where the infamous face on Mars was found.
"We wanted something that was solid," Marcus tells me. "We Fly Our Kites at Night was a clusterfuck as a band. We had terrible luck as a band. Things got fucked up all the time, we fought all the time, we were tired of that shit, and we wanted something solid. What's more solid than a rock with a big face on it on another planet?"
In Hellas Mounds, Marcus' vocals are relegated to the background. When the band plays, he sits on a barstool in front of the stage, facing the band, hunched over a microphone. The vocals are sparse at one point during the band's first show, at the Stray Cat in Tempe, Marcus went outside to smoke a cigarette while the band continued playing.
The music is loud as fuck, but it's not fast. "We literally are going to have to start passing out earplugs every time we play," Greg says. It's not much of an exaggeration, as the sound guy at the Stray Cat can attest to.
"We set up, we started, and [the sound guy] waved to us when he kind of knew the songs were ending, because we kind of just bridge everything together and go into something else," Justin says. "He comes up to me after the show, and said, 'Man, you guys shred, but I had no control no control at all.' "
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"We played four songs without a pause between and he was waving to me to turn down, but we just kept going," Greg says with a laugh.
Along with their sonic evolution, I'm impressed by Hellas Mounds' appreciation of how to distribute the band's music, developed after a bad experience trying to release a record with the Kites. Rather than record a demo and try to get someone to release it, the band is going to release one song at a time (the songs run longer than 10 minutes each), burned onto CD-Rs and available for a buck at the shows. "Last Ferry to Cydonia" will be the first, and another is likely to follow soon because the band's recording every two weeks or so.
If more bands around town would experiment, grow, and switch up their ambitions, it would make my job a lot more interesting. Especially for young musicians, it's important to remember that the journey's more important than the destination. As Greg tells me, "We're the same people, but what we're feeling and what we're wanting to put out there is different."