Hard rocking band embraces chaos and calm on 'Subtle'

The new album from hard rock lynchpin Lo-Pan, Subtle (Aqualamb Records), shifts between moments of noisy churn and more open, airy passages — a dichotomy also represented in recording sessions with producer James Brown (Foo Fighters, Nine Inch Nails), which were split between the chaos of Midtown Manhattan and the calmer confines of Upstate New York.

“Recording in Manhattan is a little bit distracting because you walk outside and anything you want is within three blocks,” said drummer Jesse Bartz, who joined singer Jeff Martin for an early May interview (bassist Skot Thompson and guitarist Chris Thompson round out the band's current lineup, which will be on display for a record release show at Ace of Cups on Saturday, May 18).

Not that the Upstate setting was preferable, though, owing to the wooded studio's relative isolation. “In some ways it was tougher,” Bartz said, “because it was us all alone with each other all of the time.”

This sense of never feeling completely settled — no matter the circumstances — has been central to Lo-Pan's existence since its 2005 formation, with the push and pull between its members, who, at times, display wildly divergent musical tastes, fueling a creative restlessness that surges to the fore throughout the unsubtle Subtle. Songs veer from “Butcher's Bill,” a six-minute behemoth that opens amid celestial, ambient tones, and the pummeling “Bring Me a War,” which finds Martin shoveling dirt on humankind as guitars slice and grind like machines of war. “No hope for the future/It's burning,” he sings, his voice stretching over the wreckage.

“I think watching what the world has devolved into over the last couple of years has brought me into that headspace of, ‘What the fuck is even happening anymore?'” Martin said. “Our government is non-functional at a base level, and maybe that's for the best because these people can't be trusted with anything.”

At the same time, there's a sense of perseverance that reveals itself in songs like “10 Days,” which Martin wrote, in part, about his ability to adapt and thrive, even in difficult situations, and the singer said a handful of tracks serve as a reminder that there's little sense hoping someone else will come along to pick up the pieces. “If you're waiting for someone else to be your savior, you're going to fall,” he said. “[‘Bring Me a War'] is really a call to action. Are you waiting for these people to grow a conscience? Or grow up and legislate us out of this mess? It's not going to happen. You're going to have to live your life the way that it makes sense for you.”

Over the course of nearly 15 years, a similar mindset has gradually bled into the band, which has become more comfortable in its collective musical skin. “For a long time we wrote songs that were more geared toward the other bands we were playing with, and I think now we're writing music that's us,” Bartz said. “We locked in and kind of assumed the roles we had always been chiseling out for ourselves.”

The 2016 addition of Chris Thompson on guitar also served as a form of spiritual renewal, allowing his more road-grizzled bandmates to experience the world of touring for the first time again through his eyes, which further reminded Martin and Co. of the unique chemistry at play within Lo-Pan.

“Whenever I get to the point where I think, ‘Maybe I shouldn't do this,' or, ‘Maybe I'm too old to be doing this' — and this always happens — we'll play a show and I'll look at [Jesse], or I'll look at Skot or Chris, and I'm like, ‘This is special,'” Martin said. “There's something unique about this band, which is something I've never experienced in my life, and it's that feeling of being part of something that's bigger than me. And that feeling keeps me going.”