Over the years, graphics in video games have evolved from tiny pixelated 8-bit characters to much more photo realistic art styles, and while this is generally seen as an advancement of the medium, in the last 10 years or so, there’s been another movement to bring back that old 8-bit aesthetic, using modern tech to evolve that style to do things it never could in its original incarnation. Think of it as an alternate history. While it’d ever be a mistake to call anything that Swedish extreme metal band Extol did basic, their 5-album discography covered a lot of ground, and any of those albums could provide foundational anchor for a whole band. In the year 2018, we receive just such an album in Heavy Yoke, the debut album from Azusa.
Azusa consists of Extol vets Christer Espevoll on guitar, David Husvik on drums, along with Liam Wilson formerly of The Dillinger Escape Plan on bass and Eleni Zafiriadou of the bands Sea+Air and Jumbo Jet on vocals. Espevoll, living that responsible adult life, was unable to participate in the 2013 Extol reunion, and apparently as a result, connected with Husvik not long after to start working on ideas that would over the next few years form the basis of Heavy Yoke. Wilson and Zafiriadou later came on board to fully flesh out the details of this album which can only be described as – to use a fancy word – bonkers.
It’s interesting to me that the last album that Espevoll played on with Extol on was 2003’s Synergy, because that album feels like the aforementioned anchor for this new band. Just listen to opener “Interstellar Islands,” which has the same weirdo prog thrash all over it. But really, Heavy Yoke confidently hops between all kinds of riffs (not just thrash) and melodic fare without ever blinking. The only thing more impressive than the amount of musical ground Azusa covers is how vital and efficiently they do it without alienating their listeners.
As talented as Espevoll, Husvik and Wilson are at their instruments, special consideration to Zafiriadou’s vocals is definitely warranted. Her multiple vocal approaches, developed from wildly disparate musical projects, end up being the centerpiece of the album. Whether drawing from her recent indie pop work or her previous punk background, her vocal choices sit unpredictably on top of an album already chock full of interesting instrumental choices. This would have been a worthwhile album had it been released instrumentally, but Zafiriadou elevates Heavy Yoke to something I can’t get enough of.
Given the legacy of its members, there was every reason to suspect that Azusa would cook up something interesting, and yet Heavy Yoke manages to display a breadth that defies even its own expectations, without wasting its listeners’ time. That’s an impressive feat worth checking out.