Phantoms (Modern Outsider Records)
Lauren Larson – vocals/guitar/keys
Eric Larson – bass
Rachel Fuhrer – drums
At the front of the stage, Lauren Larson wrangles her guitar. She bends the strings, attacks chords, her fingers blurred as they feverishly travel up and down the neck doling out lick after melodic lick while her hair whips and spins and she explodes with each blast of the drummer’s crashing cymbals. On stage, the unassuming 5-foot-2 frontwoman towers, rendered gargantuan by the ferocity of her guitar work and the propulsive power of her band Ume (pronounced ooo-may). Conjuring deft arpeggios and spacey solos from her electric with an unbridled intensity, Lauren’s electrifying energy stirs up the sonic cyclone released by the Austin-based noise rock trio anchored by her husband Eric Larson’s growling, rumbling bass and their new powerhouse drummer Rachel Fuhrer’s hard-hit thundering rhythms. Call it intelligent punk, meticulous garage rock, or hyperactive shoegaze, the music of Ume is an amped-up soundstorm emboldened by contradictions.
Exploring the artier and heavier sides of indie rock, post-punk and alternative rock, the power trio marries searing and soaring fretwork with indelible pop hooks, radiant choruses and Lauren’s gossamer (and sometimes guttural) vocals. Ume’s music is one of beautiful juxtapositions: the loud and the soft, the aggressive and the ethereal, buoyant melodies bursting through wall-of-noise dissonance. “Distortion-heavy jams (and the whole marriage thing) invite comparisons to Sonic Youth, but Ume do more headbanging and wailing,” Rolling Stone exclaimed while declaring them one of the 16 best unsigned acts in the country prior to their signing earlier this year. While critics will inevitably clamor for comparisons, Ume is ultimately a beast unto itself.
Formed in Houston in 2006, Ume have earned their stripes the old fashioned way, hitting the road and tearing down clubs with one incendiary concert after another. The three-piece throws themselves into every performance, whether playing a basement party or a festival and have earned a reputation for unleashing behemoth live shows. Rock icon Joan Jett, Gang Of Four’s Dave Allen and Of Montreal’s Bryan Poole all became championing fans and believers after witnessing the band’s sonic conflagration onstage. “Lauren is an enigmatic guitarist; all flailing hair, swinging arms, and wild movements,” Brooklyn Vegan proclaimed, adding: “If this band didn’t have such catchy songs, you’d probably be content just watching.”
With Phantoms, their full-length barn-burner, Ume has harnessed their carefully crafted chaos into ten tracks that captures the unhinged passion and raw catharsis of their live shows while pushing their ever-evolving sound to impressive new heights. Like a bridge between Black Sabbath and Bat For Lashes, the LP is heavy, anthemic, beautiful and mesmerizing. Heaviness and weightlessness coexist throughout, as Lauren’s beguiling vocals float atop a tidal wave of sound. “This album is filled with more hooks, heartache and harmonies than anything we have ever done,” Lauren reveals, and it is readily apparently. A newfound pop songcraft imbues the songs, balancing guitar squall and adroit technicality with sugary melodies.
The album is a stunning progression for the band as it sees them honing their dichotomous sound and exploring new vocal and musical territory. Lauren wafts her delicate voice over dexterous riffage on “Rubicon while “Destroyer” wanders through an arpeggiated post-rock dreamscape. Several tracks such as “The Push” are colored by flourishes of synth, a new addition to the band’s arsenal that adds a dramatic layer to the record. The band also advances their sound by practicing patient restraint as evidenced in the smokey Ennio Morricone-inspired album acoustic closer, “The Task.” The song features a finger-picked acoustic guitar and spaghetti-western style trumpet with Lauren’s hushed vocals, proving that Ume’s music is equally compelling whether behind a wall of noise or stripped down.
Before Ume started steamrolling audiences and critics with their frenetic rock, the band came from a humble beginning.
It all began with a girl, a guitar, and a skateboard ramp.
“I started playing when I was about 14,” Lauren says. “We were all part of a DIY youth punk scene in Houston; I was in a grindcore band called Twelve Blades and we were playing on a vert ramp and I was making guitar noise with my head down. After our show, Eric was the first guy to ever talk to me and we’ve been making music since.”
Eric and Lauren got married and formed Ume a few years later with original drummer Jeff Barrera, thrashing and banging heads, until another calling put the band on hold. Lauren was accepted into a philosophy PhD program, and hit the pause button on Ume. But through those years in Pennsylvania, the fire of Ume still burned in the back Lauren’s mind.
“I was always balancing my nerdy academic side with my musical side. When I’d finish a paper, I’d immediately pick up my guitar. I remember professors talking about the bands they gave up, and I realized that music really was my passion.”
Eric and Lauren returned to Austin to pick up where they left off, channeling their energy back into the mission of Ume. Like those early days in Houston, the band got back to their DIY roots, booking hundreds of shows, recording on their own, and putting every bit of themselves into every performance – whether in the basement or on a festival stage. Their widespread appeal put them on bills with diverse acts including Arcade Fire, Warpaint, Polvo, Marnie Stern, Kylesa, The Fall, even Wu-Tang Clan. Record labels approached them and wanted to change their sound, but Ume’s independent spirit kept them from being pinned down. In 2009, Ume dropped their self-released Sunshower EP, which sold-out rapidly and was named one of top albums on the year by Cincinnati’s late great radio station WOXY.
Aside from growing the band’s fan base and introducing listeners across the globe to Ume’s savage soundscapes, WOXY was the first place Chip and Erin Adams first heard Ume and started their infatuation. The husband and wife industry veterans, who were at the time working in the radio department at Dangerbird Records, quickly began a relationship with their fellow Austinites with the dream of one day working together. The following year, after hearing some of the new songs in development, Chip and Erin founded Modern Outsider Records and Ume finally got to realize their goal of having a local indie label they were thrilled to call home.
Prior to finding that right fit, the road to creating Phantoms was filled with obstacles that might have deterred a less passionate band. “It was a real struggle, physically, emotionally, and financially. We went through everything from tape-machines breaking to running out of money to a line-up change.” But in true Ume fashion, the band took matters into their own hands, recording wherever they could, from cutting edge facilities to home studios to broom closets in rehearsal spaces. “We thought this album was haunted, and the lyrics of the songs became about working through struggle and how to keep going
Fighting the odds is natural for the female-driven power trio, who has had to challenge the expectations of audiences and critics alike.
“When I take the stage, people have wondered why I was leaving the merch table, or asked if I was the girlfriend of the band or even the dancer.” Lauren says. “People have even told me that they assumed we’d be an acoustic folk band just by looking at us. But I like to surprise them.”
Lauren’ s disarmingly wholesome look and breezy Texas twang has fooled more than a few, including the management for one of her favorite artists, Cat Power. Ume was booked to open a show for the folksy Chan Marshall outfit, but at the last minute were ripped from the bill when the management finally got wind of the trio’s revved up sonic assaults.
Staying true to Lauren’ s three philosophies that power the nuclear core of Ume: “I like intensity. I like distortion. I like to get loud.”
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