Protesting capitalism with atmospheric riffs.
Named after Chapter 4 of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, Madison quartet Tyranny Is Tyranny make their agenda clear from the jump. But they prefer to spread their beliefs with music rather than manifestos.
Combining extreme dynamic shifts with radical leftist politics, Tyranny play heavy post-metal with an anti-capitalist sting. Vocalist and guitarist Russell Hall and new drummer Jonathan "J.B." Brown gave me a glimpse inside the band's world before their Nov. 22 LP-release show at the Dragonfly Lounge.
Tyranny's upcoming debut album, Let It Come From Who It May, features bruising tracks influenced by bands like Cult of Luna and '90s noise rockers Unwound. Hall and lead guitarist Jason Jensen play off each other to create grim, atmospheric riffs, while Brown and pseudonymous bassist M. Guy Ficciotto unleash violent, unpredictable rhythms that somehow manage to be graceful.
Hall and Jensen are familiar faces among lovers of dark, heavy music. Both were longtime members of local post-hardcore power trio United Sons of Toil, which disbanded last year. Tyranny started as a side project but has since become Hall and Jensen's main musical outlet.
"When we first started, [it was] a reaction against United Sons of Toil," Hall says. "We assumed United Sons of Toil would continue. We wanted to make things longer, more repetitive and more dynamic."
According to Hall, Tyranny were also supposed to be a "simplified" musical project, at least in comparison to the technical, math-rock-oriented sound of Toil. But with Tyranny's recent penchant for writing lengthy songs, this goal seems to have fallen by the wayside.
"Especially now that J.B. is in the band, we're shifting back a little bit to making things more complex," Hall says.
For Brown, atmosphere, not complexity, is the biggest challenge.
"One thing I love about this band is that we're so good at setting moods for each song, and the challenge is always to maintain that mood," he says.
Brown cites a new, unrecorded, 15-minute "saga" as a prime example.
"In our new song, part of that is not wanting to build up the tension too fast," he explains. "You need to keep some sort of intrigue, and you need to be able to sustain it."
Complex, atmospheric music isn't all Tyranny have to offer. Like Toil, they continue Hall's focus on leftist political protest. Hall says the lyrics that characterize Toil and Tyranny's music stem, in part, from a reluctance to write about highly personal matters.
"In United Sons of Toil, I made a conscious decision that I didn't want to write personal lyrics anymore," he says. "I felt like I had explored that. I also felt like I was at a point in my life where things were getting darker, and I didn't want to wallow in that."
Zinn, Chomsky, Marx and Engels are all political touchstones for Hall, but he also points to the British post-punk band Gang of Four as a lyrical influence.
For Let It Come From Who It May, Hall deliberately took aim at capitalism. This battle can be found in each of the album's songs, perhaps because he wrote all the lyrics at once.
"I had five or six sheets of paper on the coffee table, and I was thumbing through the annotated version of The Communist Manifesto and A People's History of the United States," Hall recalls. "That's why you get repeated imagery and phrases. It was an interesting way to write lyrics, and it really held all the songs together."
Despite their political bent, Tyranny aren't trying to preach to the converted. While Hall acknowledges that fans of loud underground music tend toward the left, he hopes to engage people with more centrist views.
"If I can move the meter a little bit on somebody's thinking, that's something worth trying to do," he says.
At the end of the day, however, the songs aren't just about lyrics. The music itself puts conviction into the words.