Denver Art-Rock Band Shadow Work Makes Magic With New EP | Westword

Denver Art-Rock Band Shadow Work Makes Magic With New EP

"Imago," a sulky, psychedelic collection of five tracks, is the perfect soundtrack for a drive through the mountains or coming out of an existential crisis.
Rafael Nava, Joseph Szlanic and Ben Zickau of Shadow Work.
Rafael Nava, Joseph Szlanic and Ben Zickau of Shadow Work. Courtesy of Amanda Castro
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The members of Shadow Work were breaking down their tents in Northern California before heading to Boise, Idaho, for the final leg of the band's West Coast tour. It would be a homecoming of sorts — Boise is where Rafael Nava, Joseph Szlanic and Ben Zickau first crossed paths five years ago. Nava and Szlanic, longtime friends and collaborators, slowed their swagger through the capital city's downtown boulevards when they heard dynamic percussion blasting from a busking Zickau, with whom they exchanged numbers.

The three men connected again about a year later through a mutual friend who happened to be Zickau’s roommate. With each musician at a crossroads between dissolved projects, they began officially collaborating, performing at dives and speakeasies in Boise while they found their footing as a trio. Improv jams and experimental sets began to shape what would become, upon their arrival in Denver in 2021, the art-rock band Shadow Work.

The band has hit its stride with the August 1 release of its sophomore EP, Imago a sulky, psychedelic collection of five tracks. Following Shadow Work’s 2021 release, Robben Island, the new EP is chock-full of Nava's gravelly, impassioned vocals over Szlanic’s haunting, washed-out bass licks and Zickau's far-away cymbal crashes and tom rolls.

For Nava, Imago represents a metamorphosis of Shadow Work's sound, showing how the lead singer’s long-held folk influences organically seeped into the band’s identity rather than conforming to any specific genre. “The first record was me attempting to be a part of Shadow Work,” Nava explains. “That was me trying to fit words that made sense and were true to me while working in a band setting, and I feel like the second record is me being more comfortable in the band setting and being able to express my acoustic side and my folk nature as an artist. … I feel like the parts aren't smashing together anymore.”

“We're a little more comfortable taking risks now," Szlanic adds, "because there’s the underlying faith that it's gonna sound good.”

Shadow Work's signature moodiness is still prevalent in the new work, but Imago sees the band further embellishing its unique groove. While tracks on Robben Island contain similar features, the group's newer work seems to slow down, with the musicians feeling more comfortable in their collective identity.

“I think the first record, Robben Island, was more frantic — almost like we have to show we’re this kind of musician and we're also this kind of musician," Nava reflects. "And I think this next record is us being more confident [in] the sound that we create together and letting those vibes right out."

The trio has big plans, including adding a local producer to its ranks to mix and match its next project, which Shadow Work hopes will be a full-length album followed by an international tour. But for now, Imago will be supported by a domestic tour starting in Denver, with dates to be announced soon.

The Shadow Work members have a lot of love for the Colorado community, including their usual stamping grounds of Denver, Fort Collins and Boulder, and they cite local musicians and fans as an impetus for showcasing their sound on tour. Knowing the positive reception the band receives after playing a show in Denver, Nava wants to "replicate exactly that" in other cities across the United States.

In the process, the trio will also be spreading its philosophical ethos, which is heard on Imago and revealed in the songs' titles and concepts. Even Shadow Work's moniker is a nod to that, influenced by Carl Jung's idea of self-exploration by unlocking repressed memories or emotions and embracing them to come closer to a fully realized consciousness.

“I think when we all got together, our main focus was to make really, really cool and creative music, and then secondary to that was becoming really good friends who understood each other,” says Szlanic. “I think that a person's a great foil for yourself. You get a person who comes from a completely different life than yours, and that whole different perspective just shines light on your own qualities that are good, but also your insecurities and your downfalls.”

During the current tour, Zickau has been reading Jung in his spare time.

“I’m paraphrasing, but [Jung] said the psychological purpose of a friend, or one of them, is that it's very easy for a friend to tell you something about yourself that you have zero knowledge of," Zickau says. "And when you have three people doing that for each other consistently, I think it's only right that you would end up with a really cohesive unit, creatively.”

Imago is available now on all streaming platforms. Shadow Work plays the hi-dive, 7 South Broadway, at 8 p.m. Wednesday, August 23, opening for Pictoria Vark and Allison Lorenzen. Tickets are $12-$15.
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