On a recent Friday night, Candace Lazarou, the singer of Mansion, stood where the pulpit would have been at an Oakland church that is now an underground music venue. Bathed in red light, Lazarou appeared stern and despotic, like a general rallying her troops. She addressed her audience with tense expressions and grandiose gestures, clenching her leather-gloved hands into tight fists as she wailed over a storm of screeching guitars and crashing cymbals.
While mixing genres is almost de rigueur in the Bay Area's music scene, Mansion's sound is notably category-resistant. On a first listen, the guitar-driven instrumentation on the group's debut LP, Early Life (which — full disclosure — former Express music editor Sam Lefebvre put out through his fanzine-turned-label, Degenerate), might sound like a barrage of shrill distortion, but in actuality, its compositions are carefully articulated and rife with unexpected twists. Cacophonous pounding often lapses into digestible pop melodies; grating, messy chords fall into recognizable rhythms that borrow from doom metal and surf rock. Each track contains an assault of jarring noise but pulls back at the right moments to give the instruments room to breath.
The tempestuous album attests to the bandmembers' penchant for pushing their instruments to their extremes until they take on alien and austere sonic qualities. Guitarists Matt Ferrara and Adam Keith tune their strings to an unusual pattern of C-C sharp and often continue to play even after their guitars have gone out of tune. They use broken distortion pedals to cultivate textured sounds that scrape, scratch, and howl.
Keith said in a recent interview that the musicians' unconventional techniques were more arbitrary before the group's previous guitarist, Ronny Burke, left the band. After Ferrara took his place, Mansion had to standardize its approach so that he could learn its material.
"In the beginning, we were trying to make songs sound really mechanized — like have a part in a song that just sounds like a factory or some process happening," said drummer Jeff Cook.
Keith nodded. "Yeah, kind of removing the individuality from each instrument and making them all lock together so that all the instruments sound inseparable some way."
Keith and Ferrara's unconventional guitar playing is the main source of Mansion's intensity, but the bandmates agreed that they take pains not to inundate their tracks with too much instrumentation. In previous interviews, they've described their songwriting process as "subtractive." Keith and Ferrara rarely play simultaneously and often take turns repeating complementary phrases instead. They said not having a bassist in the lineup was a deliberate choice because Cook's generous kick-drum use suffices for the rhythm section.
"When we're writing, we have to be careful not to make the song unintelligible by having all the space filled at once," Cook explained. "We often have the guitars in call-and-response because each guitar can be pretty big."
Lazarou's voice creates resounding harmonies with Keith and Ferrara's guitar playing, and her vocal arrangements often blend with their riffs. Her acute, metallic timbre contrasts with the instruments' low tones and adds to the music's overall venom. On much of Early Life, she sings with a choleric delivery. But there are also tracks on which her style is more melodic and robust. On "California Priest," she draws out reverberating low notes over a tick-tocking drum beat and intermittent guitar chords, creating a droning, hypnotic effect.
"Because [my bandmates] are pushing their instruments so much to sound like things that they're not, I try to push the edges of my vocal ability and not be scared of my voice," Lazarou said. "It's important, especially for female singers, because we're told not to sound ugly or disconcerting."
By her own admission, Lazarou is somewhat of a misanthrope. Mansion's aggressive compositions, she said, give her a platform to air out her frustrations with humankind through her lyrics.
"There are songs about people in the modern age behaving in ways they think are acceptable with each other that I don't understand, so I try to write from their point of view," she said.
What appalling behaviors make for the most compelling lyrical fodder? "Not being intentional — that's the root of all evil. I trust evil schemers more than I trust people who are flailing in the world, not knowing if they're hitting anybody else. At least the schemers have a trajectory."