Most hard rock bands deliberately embrace limitations. Ever since the musical excesses of the early ’70s, rockers have shied away from epic ambitions and have concentrated instead on staying within a safe marketing niche. They’ve restricted themselves to the unbridled aggression of heavy metal, the catchy hooks of pop-rock, the angst-ridden complexities of grunge, the cartoonish simplicity of modern-day punk, or the earthy realities of traditional roots music.
But the members of Stella impose no such limitations on themselves. On Ascension, the Nashville-based band’s debut on Beggars Banquet Records, the quartet moves beyond the macho poses and studied attitudes of most rock bands to present a cohesive yet audacious sound that balances explosive power with moments of magic and grace.
The band can roar with blasting force, as it does on “Rites of Day,” “California,” and “Blissmark.” Yet even these hard-rocking songs feature unusually dynamic guitar interplay and a polyrhythmic base that ripples with complexity and thunderous power. Then, on “Azure” and “Aporia,” the band creates an ethereal sound. But even as these songs display a fragile, sensual beauty, they course with an uneasy tension that keeps them from slipping into formulaic rock ballads. These aren’t tunes to sing along with; the music is physical, while the lyrics and vocals are emotive and heady. The band eschews hooks and choruses in an attempt to keep the music impressionistic rather than obvious and concrete.
Much as Stella consists of four equal parts, at the center is singer Curt Perkins, whose risk-taking vocal work gives the band its most distinctive quality. Perkins owns the rare ability to sing with roof-raising strength and with tender delicacy, yet he makes no attempt at chest-beating poses or at cloying intimacy. Even his frailest moments are delivered with dramatic intensity, and his muscular moments stay in a vehement overdrive. Whether he’s wailing with clear, shattering potency or wringing his tenor with aching vulnerability, there’s a sense that Perkins is aloft in his own world of dreams, where he uses purging screams and exquisite murmurs to express what he feels. He doesn’t reach out to the listenerit’s hard to imagine him strutting across a stage and encouraging someone to clap or shout out; instead, he provides a flesh-and-bone vehicle for others to fall as deeply and as wholly into the music as he does.
But without the anchor of good songwriting, Perkins could easily come off sounding self-indulgent or pretentious. In this respect, he benefits greatly from a band so capable of lending a sinewy authority to his intricate compositions. Guitarist Charles Wyrick, bassist Preach Rutherford, and drummer Alan Johnstone (who puts forth a particularly impressive effort) create a fiery, complex racket that shows both muscle and intelligence without ever breaking into a sweat.
“It’s always been our intention that everything we do be infused with the same kind of intensity,” says Perkins, a soft-spoken and thoughtful man who weighs his words carefully. “We wanted to make a really big-sounding rock record, because we wanted something representative of our sound onstage. But we also wanted something that was interesting in its diversity. We wanted it to be big and loud, but we didn’t want to sacrifice the other things that are important to us.”
The band is currently in the midst of a two-month tour to promote the release of Ascension, which was shipped to record stores this week. (The group’s schedule includes a hometown performance this Saturday at Victor/Victoria’s.) But the road isn’t new to Stella; even without an album to advance its cause, the band has consistently worked the East Coast and the South for the last two years, drawing positive recommendations in New York’s Village Voice, Atlanta’s Creative Loafing, and other regional papers.
“We’ve probably played New York City and Washington, D.C., more than we’ve played Nashville,” Perkins laughs. “That’s partly just because Nashville isn’t an easy city to play in, even if you’re from here. But it’s also because of the style of our music. It’s a very urban-sounding rock that probably has more in common with those cities.”
Indeed, Stella was signed to its record contract by a London resident who first saw the band at a live date in the Pacific Northwest. Lesley Bleakley, president of the British record label Beggars Banquet, discovered the band when she saw them perform at a Seattle music festival. As a result of that performance, Stella became Bleakley’s first U.S. signing after the record exec took over the label’s top post.
Stella’s ambitious, textured sound is reflected in the comparisons the band receives. Led Zeppelin is mentioned often: “Blissmark,” one of the most striking songs on Ascension, includes a recurring theme that mimics the memorable riff from Led Zep’s “Misty Mountain Hop”; and especially in the quieter moments, Perkins’ high-strung vocals recall Robert Plant’s combination of delicacy and force. Other interesting comparisons include Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and Radiohead. But as with each of these bands, part of Stella’s charm has to do with the fact that the group simply can’t be pigeonholed.
“Our signature sound is probably the loud guitars,” Perkins says. “But hopefully it includes some interesting, dynamic guitar arrangementswe work hard on the guitar structure and on coming up with this dense chording. We also wanted to create vehicles for lots of vocals. That’s where the elements fight, in our desire to create something that’s loud but has a narrative.”
As a result, the group’s music allows for a wider range of emotions than most bands are able to achieve. “That’s something we intended,” Perkins relates. “We wanted to express something loud and angry that was also sensual and beautiful. There are parts of anger that can be very sensual. We wanted to express that kind of feeling.”
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