I never really considered myself a singer," says Year Future's Sonny Kay with a laugh. "Especially not in Angel Hair. That would have been a little ridiculous."
Kay isn't exaggerating. Angel Hair, an outfit he fronted in Boulder in the early '90s, has since become legendary for its flesh-peeling, bone-scouring fits of caustic dissonance and sonic paranoia. The band's stage performances were nothing short of utterly unnerving. Each song started and stopped with jabs of feedback; crammed in the middle was what looked and sounded like a gang of epileptics set on fire and thrown into the blades of a helicopter. At the core of the din was Kay's voice, a fevered, seething screech that hit your adrenal glands with the force of a brass-knuckled sucker punch.
Pavarotti, it wasn't.
With the Symptoms and Constellations, 7 p.m. Friday, August 13, all ages; with the Constellations, 9 p.m., 21 and over, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, $8, 303-291-1007
"I'm not an opera singer by any stretch of the imagination. By that, I mean stamina," admits Kay. "It takes a lot to really sing well and play an exciting show. I see old videos of Angel Hair, and I seem so animated. But that's not really the point of Year Future, anyway. All things considered, with the state of affairs of the world today, I totally feel inspired to go out now and connect with people. That's the whole point of what we're doing. I would rather have people hear what I'm singing and understand it."
The state of the world's affairs, as Kay sees it, is not pretty. And neither is Year Future's music. The quartet -- Kay, guitarist Rockey Crane, bassist Sam Ott and drummer Jim Anderson -- released its self-titled debut this spring; it's a feral, four-song reflex against all the graft, greed and evil of the current economic and geopolitical climate. While his corrosive howl isn't much more intelligible than it was back in the Angel Hair days, Kay's lyrics have never been more lucid. Avoiding the screeds and cliches of most politically charged groups, the track "All of Your Eggs" wraps layers of dark, suffocating punk rock around lines like "Drugs make sense their politics couldn't begin to" and "It's not how much you spend/But where you send the check to." On "Each Other's Futures," barbed riffs lifted from either the Dead Kennedys or Bauhaus pierce the singer's anti-authoritarian taunt: "The last thing anyone expects/ Is exceptions to test/The rulers blind faith protects/Or the ropes around our necks." By the time "Some Bodies" closes the disc with a volley of digital blips, heaves of distorted bass and Kay's snarling invitation to "watch willpower kill," it's clear that Year Future has an ax to grind -- and it just ground it against your skull.
Believe it or not, such overt sloganeering is new to Kay. After Angel Hair dissolved and was reborn as the VSS in 1995, his songs were firmly fixed in a more abstract and poetic mode of address, an alliteration-splattered collage of nihilistic imagery and pseudo science fiction. Not that his style didn't serve the group well; the VSS's collision of hardcore chaos and arena-rock theatricality -- while not particularly lucrative in its day -- inspired scores upon scores of bands, including many prominent acts of the last few years, like the Blood Brothers, the Locust and At the Drive-In.
"I'm not bitter about it or anything," Kay says of the success of many of his imitators. "My old bands didn't do anything that original, either. We were ripping off everything from Drive Like Jehu to old Battalion of Saints. That's obviously a big part of the process of music and how it progresses. The logical evolution of rock music and guitar sounds would have ended up there anyway. But it is funny for me to watch a lot of these popular bands nowadays. It doesn't seem wrong; sooner or later, every type of music gets its fifteen minutes, its brief splash of popularity. It's definitely a little surreal sometimes, but some aging punk rocker from the glory days of the '80s probably said exactly the same thing about Rocket From the Crypt ten years ago."
Kay's acquaintance with so many heavy-hitters of the underground, though, is more than godfatherly. His record label, GSL, first housed Denver-area groups like Meanface, Foreskin 500, Bunny Genghis and '57 Lesbian; but when he moved with the VSS to Berkeley in 1996, the imprint went with him. Almost immediately, he was putting out records by soon-to-be luminaries like the Locust, !!! and the Rapture. When the VSS disintegrated bitterly in '97 (the three other members went on to form the now-defunct Sub Pop act Pleasure Forever), Kay decided to hang up the mike and concentrate his energy on GSL, eventually enlisting At the Drive-In's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, now of the Mars Volta, as co-owner. But immersed in music as Kay was, rocking was the last thing on his mind.
"I got kind of disillusioned after the VSS broke up," he confesses. "My faith in the whole band process had been compromised. And I never really felt as though we were connecting with our audience that much, anyway. I also wanted to give GSL the attention I felt it wasn't getting. I started to discover that there were a lot of aspects of putting out other bands' records that I enjoyed, rather than actually being in a band myself. It wasn't something that I was even consciously thinking about. I didn't even realize that I had missed it. But when the opportunity came up and I really thought about it, the people involved seemed right and the reasons seemed right."
But before the stars would align for Year Future, Kay suffered one more misfire, in the form of a short-lived combo called Subpoena the Past. The contrast between the two names may be accidental, but it's also telling: While Subpoena the Past's experimental aggro-dub wallowed in muddy gloom and the gravity of expectations, Year Future cuts like a laser into the possibility of tomorrow. The group convened in 2003 after Crane, Ott and Anderson -- veterans of notable California punk groups like Dead and Gone, Creeps on Candy, the Fucking Angels, the Pattern and Talk Is Poison -- had relocated from the Bay Area to Los Angeles around the same time Kay did. What began as an informal, unfocused excuse to get together and jam quickly turned into a full-time collective with a sharply defined, progressive aesthetic -- and, more important to Kay, an agenda.
"I really wanted Year Future to be meaningful," he explains. "I feel like we all have this understanding that there's a bigger purpose to what we're doing. It's so not about any kind of fashion. I don't care what kind of shoes the other people in the band wear. The reality of life is a little more urgent than that. I feel like the urgency of the style of music we do fits the urgency of what's happening in the world right now."
With voters polarized, casualties piling higher every day and the calendar inching ever closer to what may be one of the most pivotal elections in U.S. history, even entertainers are starting to feel uneasy sitting on the sidelines. Everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Blink-182 is jumping off the fence and committing to help rid the White House of bullies and crooks come November -- and by doing so, they're also perhaps helping to open people's eyes a bit to the vast corporate apparatus that truly determines too much of Americans' lives.
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Of course, Year Future doesn't have an audience of millions. But to Kay, that's no reason to stay cynical and silent.
"It's still in my nature to be a cynic, but I don't feel like a pessimist anymore," says Kay. "I've never felt as motivated or potentially powerful as I do these days. I don't have any delusions about affecting some mass of people, but I have to do what I can. Even as relatively ineffectual as putting out records and touring around the world in a little van is, I feel like anything that provides an example of how to work against the bigger machine is valid and, at this point, essential. People are realizing how fucking terrible everything is, or at least they're starting to. People are starting to ask questions.
"I realize that the whole world is bound to this idea of capitalism," he continues, "this worker-ant mentality, these lives of absolute triviality. But the thought of the human race living in bondage to a theory that's vested in nothing more than paper and shiny rocks seems totally insane to me. Maybe at this point in human evolution there's finally going to be an awakening of some kind. That's what's going to change life on this planet. The whole mechanism around us could change."
Sounds like something worth screaming about.