Hard-rock vets find fresh life in massive, melodic new band

On a snowy Friday in December, the five bandmates in Akula gathered in the low-ceilinged basement of a Westgate home. With windows blotted out by dark fabric and at least a half-dozen skulls positioned to overlook the room, it’s an appropriately ominous setting for the group’s heavy, guitar-driven sound. At least it could be if the musicians could stop debating the relative merits of the new “Star Wars” film. Or if the skulls were actually human remains rather than glass bottles filled with varying quantities of hard liquor.

For the past 18 months or so, the home, belonging to guitarist Chris Thompson, has functioned as a weekly gathering spot for the five veterans of the hard-rock scene, including singer Jeff Martin (who also teams with Thompson in still-active, still-epic Lo-Pan), bassist and lone “Star Wars” detractor Scott Hyatt (Bridesmaid), guitarist Sergei Parfenov (Ves, Nightsoil) and drummer Ronnie Miller (Struck By Lightning).

Days earlier, Martin, Miller and Hyatt gathered for an interview at a Clintonville coffee shop, during which they discussed the slow, labor-intensive process of creating Akula’s self-titled, four-song debut EP, which surfaced digitally in early January.

“I think it took almost a year for us to get two songs done,” said Martin, who was inspired to form Akula with Thompson as a fun, low-pressure outlet when he found himself with an excess of free time after another Lo-Pan bandmate had a child.

“When we started the project … a big tenet was we never wanted to rush anything out to play a show, or rush to get a record done,” said Hyatt. “It’s done when it’s done, as opposed to some of the other things we’ve been a part of where we’re on a time crunch to get this thing done before going in the studio.”

Songs, in turn, tend to gestate slowly, undergoing long periods of incubation during which the bandmates audition myriad ideas. “Everyone had this open-door policy where parts and things were concerned,” Hyatt said. “Every time someone added a part or tried something new, it felt like, ‘I’m going to go for it and see how it fits in the song.’”

This approach was on full display as the musicians fine-tuned a new, still-untitled song during the December practice, with Parfenov introducing a proggy flourish to an established riff. After running it through a few times, the bandmates agreed to discard the passage in favor of its more straightforward predecessor, which Miller rightfully described as “Iron Maiden ripping off Thin Lizzy.”

“I liked it better before, without the white-boy wankery,” Martin cracked.

“It doesn’t fit,” Parfenov agreed.

These occasionally time-intensive negotiations have been time well spent, judging from the massive, melodic epics populating Akula’s self-released EP, which pair Martin’s soaring vocals with complex, metal-indebted instrumentals, the shortest of which clocks in at just a shade over nine minutes.

The songs, recorded by Joe Viers at Sonic Lounge Studios in Grove City, are both brutal and beautiful, containing passages of trash-compacting swirl that give way to airy moments of bliss, mirroring the feel of hacking through an overgrown jungle only to wind up standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking an expansive valley. (Press play on “Force Me Open” and prepare to be awed as the track shifts gears just beyond the five-minute mark.)

Coming into Akula, the bandmates had a rough idea of what they wanted to do musically. “I was listening to a lot of Yob, and I wanted to do something in that vein — obviously not a copy, but maybe using that as a jumping-off point,” Martin said, though Akula’s slippery, somewhat formless sound can be attributed largely to Thompson’s unorthodox approach to songcraft, as well as the freedom the fresh start allowed the players.

“[Writing for my other band] you can find yourself asking, ‘Is this a Lo-Pan song? This song we’ve ended up with here — is this a song we would write?’” Martin said. “[With Akula] we didn’t have a defined sound as a band because we didn’t have any songs. It could be anything we wanted it to be. It can sound like anything.

“Allowing it to do that, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a band that sounds exactly like this one. We draw from different influences, but I don’t think you can pinpoint another band that sounds exactly like this one. And that’s a good feeling, when you come up with something that feels good and also feels unique.”