Kylesa has long been a band of limited metamorphosis, which made their abrupt turn toward a sort of mitigated psychedelia on 2013's Ultraviolet eyebrow-raising, but even that smirkingly "outré" turn was still recognizably within the band's wheelhouse. Was it meant as a furtive first step toward something more outlandish, though, or did Ultraviolet represent a standalone experiment, a notable – even commendable – blip in an otherwise reliably consistent (if increasingly predictable) catalog?
The answer is here with Exhausting Fire, and it's a bit of both, but probably more of the latter than the former. First of all, whereas the singing on Ultraviolet was uncharacteristically dominated by Laura Pleasants, Exhausting Fire welcomes back Phillip Cope as equal co-singer… if anything he has a slightly dominant presence here, though not to the extent that he ceded to Pleasants on the last album. Cope isn't as versatile a singer as Pleasants, so it's not automatically an asset to have him back in full force, but the biggest selling point of Exhausting Fire is that the band is back to writing earworm riffs of the type that benefit well from Cope's sometimes deadpan, sometimes exultatory singing. You didn't need a lot of range for what he does best, which is memorably exhibited on "Night Drive" and "Growing Roots", a pair of real fucking knockout Kylesa tracks if there ever were any (spoiler: there are a lot).
Vestiges of Ultraviolet's experimental edge are not entirely absent here: opening track "Blood Moon" begins with a riff oscillating comfortably between trendy shoegaze and "Planet Caravan"-style psychedelia, but it doesn't linger there long before revealing itself as a classic Kylesa sludge-riffing juggernaut. "Crusher" continues in that vein, replete with the clean, emotionally distant vamping that Laura Pleasants has increasingly come to favor over the last several albums. This singing style reaches an apex on "Inward Delete", which faintly resembles a female-led Godflesh, not that that's in way a bad thing.
Perhaps the biggest head turner is an intentionally listless take on Sabbath's "Paranoid", the band's hazy narcotic take on the oft-covered classic a deliberate counterpoint to the overwrought original. Isolated as a single it would come off as a one-and-done listen, a novelty cover pleasant(s) enough but otherwise not particularly noteworthy, but within the confines of the album sequencing it's a welcome – even necessary – bridge between the aggressive lull of "Out of My Mind" (bass solo!) and swinging stadium doom of "Shaping the Southern Sky".
As consistent and of-a-piece as the album is as a whole, though, I find myself coming back to those two instant classics, "Growing Roots" and "Night Drive", either one of which should immediately qualify as encore material in the band's setlist. That's no slight against the rest of the record, it's more of a matter of Kylesa being an act that delivers on varying rewards, some visceral and immediate, some foundational and a bit more discreet. It's basically why few people have a hands down favorite Kylesa album, though they invariably find it easier to single out the ones they don't like quite as well as the others. It's also why Kylesa maintains a stronghold on the metal community's conscience year after year, even when we vaguely kinda feel like we've all seen and heard this song and dance before. Doesn't matter, as it's striking at a inexhaustible pleasure center, the one that can't get enough MSG or nicotine. It's Kylesa's world, we're just living in it.