The Ills – “Zoya”

One of the best things about Iceland Airwaves is discovering new bands, bands you would probably never come across otherwise. Sure, sometimes there’s a reason why a band is relatively unknown, and it’s because they aren’t very good. But more often it’s a matter of geography and the sheer volume of music fighting for our attention in the constant churn that is the internet. We’re given access to so much new and different stuff that at times it becomes so overwhelming you want to throw up your hands, put on a greatest hits album by Tom Petty or the Eagles, and just give up.

The other great thing about Airwaves is it sometimes “forces” me to listen to an entire set by a band I might otherwise walk out on. Like it did on the festival’s second night last year when we got to Húrra early so we could stake out good spots to see Dr. Spock, who were the third band on the bill. The openers, Hórmónar, were right in our wheelhouse and we loved them. Then came The Ills, a quartet from Slovakia, and it quickly became apparent that they played instrumental rock, something I normally avoid in the same way that Marie Antoinette avoided the hoi polloi (though she got up close and personal with them in the end). But by the second song it was clear there was something happening. The Ills were starting to take control of the room through their sheer talent and obvious joy in playing together. By the third song we were all rocking out, so much so that when their set finished after the allotted 35-40 minutes, we were all left wanting just one more song. If I hadn’t specifically been at the venue to see the very next band, I might not have stayed long enough to appreciate The Ills, and that would have been my loss. We ended up running into a couple of the guys a night later at Harpa and were gushing in our praise of their set, much to their appreciation and perhaps slightly to their embarrassment, as they were obviously a humble bunch who were simply glad that people enjoyed hearing them play.

Above is a shot I took of the band at Airwaves, and as you can see they’re tearing it up. The crowd was way into it, though that dude off to the left of the stage looked like he might have been channeling some kind of demonic presence, or maybe he’s just Felix La PuBelle from Grosse Pointe Blank and he’s getting ready to whack someone. Either way, it seems like he’s staring straight into my soul.

A month or two after we got home I ordered The Ills’ 2014 album Zoya, and it just arrived the other day all the way from Slovakia. I picked it for the simple reason that it’s available on vinyl, and I’m glad I did because the 200 copy run just sold out (though their 2012 release Spendor is still available on their Bandcamp page for €10 plus shipping). I was excited to write about Zoya and exposure you all to it, and then I found out that just a day or two ago Kevin Cole played The Ills on his KEXP radio show. Damn, I got scooped! Well, Kevin’s a cool dude and obviously has great taste in music, and ultimately it’s my fault for waiting.

I’ve read The Ills described as post-rock and shoegaze, and I suppose those tags are accurate enough as they go. They also exhibit characteristics of prog and metal, which when you put it all together gives you something that seems like you might kinda understand their sound but still feeling a bit unsure. That’s the right way to feel, because The Ills aren’t easy to box in.

Right out of the gate The Ills hit you with a barrage of different influences. “Born Under the Mournstar” brings some classic prog elements but also some doom, not as fast or heavy as a doom metal band would play but recognizable with it’s weight and density. Their playing is deliberate and structured – give a listen to “Raised Among Cuckoos” and you’ll immediately understand what I mean; these are craftsmen taking the time to make sure that the song is done right, that it’s clear in its structure and composition. It’s the difference between reading a classic novel versus a piece of pulp fiction; both can be enjoyable depending on what you want to get out of them, but the classic is layered and nuanced in a way that rewards you from taking the time and paying attention to each and every word. That’s what Zoya does; it catches your attention and tells you, “dude, sit down, close your eyes, and experience this”. Which is exactly what I did after I flipped the record, letting the B side wash over me.

Do yourself a favor and check out The Ills on their Bandcamp page. These guys are playing some special music, and your ears deserve the opportunity to hear it.

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