Spam bots take note: Us, Today is the name of a Cincinnati-based Post Rock trio — not the Gannett Company’s flagship daily newspaper.
One letter removed from USA Today, the band’s name attracts a torrent of unwanted email meant for the publication’s editorial staff. On any given day, Us, Today might open their inbox to find around 30 messages, from official press releases to political rants poorly rendered into English via Google Translate. .
“One of most common messages we get is from the Illuminati asking us to join,” says vibraphonist Kristin Agee. “And, they’re often saying something like, ‘if you join us, we’ll bring you wealthe (sic) and fame and love and luck.’ ”
For many, junk mail exists as a mere annoyance — easily disposed of. For Us, Today, it’s a source of aesthetic inspiration. The trio’s COMPUTANT LP, set to release this Friday (with a release show that night at Over-the-Rhine’s Woodward Theater), is a loosely conceptual effort centered around digital clutter. Six of its nine track titles are culled from particularly weird emails, and the music that accompanies them is suitably dense and cerebral.
The record’s third and most recent single, “Wealthe + Fame + Love + Luck,” even includes lyrics cut and pasted from the Illuminati invitation referenced by the title. It’s Us, Today’s first composition to include “vocals,” which were performed live by Agee and processed through a vocoder, mimicking the sound of text-to-speech software.
These spoken-word sections bridge dissonant vibraphone riffs, tinged with raspy distortion and propelled by a hefty rhythm section consisting of live percussion and synth bass. Tension builds, ushering in an explosive refrain that lets triumphant peals of tremolo-picked guitar do battle ghostly splashes of vibraphone.
It’s an adventurous leap forward for the trio. While Us, Today’s 2015 sophomore outing TENENEMIES mainly consisted of quirky, chilled-out tunes that recalled Tortoise or Joan of Arc, COMPUTANT hints at a more aggressive ethos, loaded with gritty textures and sinister harmonies.
This evolution stems from an intentional effort to test out more electronic sounds. Agee added pickups to her vibraphone, which allows her to run it through effects pedals. Drummer Jeff Mellot now incorporates a sampling pad in his kit. Most notably, guitarist Joel Griggs now plays a Moog synthesizer, swapping out instruments during sets.
“Traditionally, I’ve held down the bass aspect of the group” says Griggs, who previously used an octave pedal on his guitar to simulate the sound of the bass. “As we’ve gone along we’ve wanted to go deeper and fatter. That was kind of the answer. The biggest sound you can get is a Moog synthesizer. It’s super fat.”
The band enlisted designer Chris Glass to flesh out COMPUTANT’s cybernetic atmosphere, laying out its cover artwork with a blocky typeface and vibrant color scheme befitting an early-’80s personal computer ad.
“Chris is the shit. Quote — Us, Today,” Mellot says.
Glass has handled Us, Today’s visuals since 2015, when the band released TENENEMIES, which features a photo of ten matchsticks scattered across a solid red backdrop.
“He’ll give you the cover you said you wanted, and then he’ll show you the cover that you actually wanted,” says Agee.
“We’re always going in a certain direction, and then Chris puts us in our place,” Mellot adds. “He’s so good at what he does that we see it and we’re instantly like, ‘Yup.’ ”
Though their penchant for vibraphone and technical prowess might suggest otherwise, Us, Today would rather you avoid using the word “jazz” to describe them.
Listen closely and you’ll understand why.
COMPUTANT may appropriate some of the genre’s modal cues, but in the end, it’s more indebted to the lofty cohesion of late-’00s Indie Rock. The record is mostly free of improvisation and soloing, focusing on the band’s ability to create and arrange immersive, often anthemic compositions. It is loud, arresting and very deliberate.
“That was one of our pigeonholes early on,” Griggs says. “We got coined as a Jazz project, and Jazz doesn’t do a lot of (what we do). There’s definitely a split between Rock and Jazz. Jazz is synonymous with quiet rooms now, and it has a very specific feel. When you’re trying to sell what we do, (if you) call it Jazz… people expect this one thing.”
Agee says she’s more comfortable describing Us, Today’s music as Experimental Rock. The term is vague enough to include all of the ideas the band crams into its songcraft, while specific enough to give potential listeners an idea of what to expect.
On COMPUTANT, much of this experimentation takes the form of the band’s studies in controlled chaos. Much of the album finds the trio exploring the interplay between beauty and cacophony to create gut-punching mood shifts. On “Spellcaster (Dr. Spirit),” for example, Agee’s vibraphone is so busy and encrusted with distortion that it resembles an alarm, jostling a bustling rhythm awake. Later, trickles of delayed guitar leak into the mix like sun through the blinds.
Awakened, the full band spends the second half of the track regrouping, laying down spacey rhythm guitar that serves as the foundation for shimmering vibe touches. Where there once was disorder, there is comforting familiarity. Though it isn’t always apparent on a first listen, there’s narrative structure woven into each of Us, Today’s tunes, usually consisting of an initial sense of apprehension that builds to a thunderous moment of clarity.
The band’s members agree that despite the new material’s theming, it’s abstract enough that the listener can ascribe their own meaning to the music. It’s a work that is open to interpretation.
“It’s definitely more cohesive than what we’ve done in the past,” Agee says. “If you play it from start to finish, there are ideas that come back. We did that a bit on TENENEMIES, and so we started writing with that in mind.
“I feel like we’ve created a story — a little world. It’s like watching a movie. You can put it on and live this experience.”