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The melodic howls of Irata

by John Adamian

Greensboro’s Irata inverts some of the normal hierarchies of metal. Instead of having songs that scream out with guitar heroics, Irata’s tunes—many of them—sound like they were written with the rumbling bass as the starting point. In a lot of cases that’s how it happened, with bass grooves being the kernel on which rhythmic intricacies, vocal melodies and chugging guitar patterns are then layered.

Those seeking glory generally don’t become bassists in a metal band. In a lot of heavy music the bassist plays a workmanlike role, providing the low-end underpinnings that anchor the songs. Most metal bands don’t showcase super elaborate or showy bass parts. A bassist for a metal band should generally be comfortable in the shadows, selfless, maybe even humble, happy to serve the material. Those are qualities that characterize the playing of all three members of Irata at different times.

I spoke with Irata’s bassist and vocalist Jon Case last week about the band’s genesis, their songwriting and their plans for the near future. Irata play Greene Street in Greensboro on Monday, June 13.

Irata is a trio in which every player has a no-nonsense aspect to what they do, and yet the band has a satisfying complexity that rewards repeated listening.

The band has been around in one form or another for eight years or so. It’s been the changing shape of the lineup that’s partly driven Case and co-founder and drummer Jason Ward (who also sings some) to arrive at the Irata sound, which is heavy, complex and yet melodic. The band includes guitarist Cheryl Manner, who joined Irata after Ward and Case pursued a drums/bass duo version of the band for a stretch starting in 2010. The band started as a trio, but following the departure of their original guitarist and singer, Ward and Case decided to focus on songwriting and singing while they looked for a replacement.

“I was just kind of coming into my own songwriting at the time,” says Case. “When [the original guitarist] left it was time to step it up. We took a year and taught ourselves to sing.”

If you’ve listened to Case’s powerful and tuneful vocals — ranging from piercingly high sustained howls to deeper, more vulnerable middle-range singing — you might find it surprising to learn that he wasn’t a forceful and confident singer at the start.

“When I first started, I was nervous to sing in front of Jason, my band member,” says Case. The challenges were more mental than vocal. “For me, it was just 90 percent getting the balls to do it. You just jump right in. You just do it.”

Case’s singing often involves notes held long and draped over top of the faster-moving instrumental parts. The vocal phrasing creates its own kind of counterpoint. And then Case blasts his larynx into the upper atmosphere for those intense shrieks, adding another startling contrasting element.

“I try to make the screams melodic too,” he says. Case says that they tend not to think of their songs in terms of time signatures or meters. It’s more organic than analytical, he says. However they arrive there, the band seems to like working in three- and six-beat patterns. That often makes for more lopsided phrasing, with accents and stresses that fall in less regular spots. Listen to a song like “Chlorine” off of the band’s 2015 release, “Loris.” You can count it a couple of different ways, but there are seven-beat sections, creating a stuttering, whiplash effect as the parts line up and lock into place.

Depending on your taste for taxonomy, you might call Irata progressive metal or maybe sludge — there are definitely elements of both, in terms of the intricate parts and the thudding tempos and textures. Case, 40, played in heavy indie-leaning bands in his 20s and he’s a Melvins fan. But the band is doing its own thing, with Manner’s guitar feathering in unusual bright and minimal colors on the high strings, and Case’s bass lines serving as something like a groove, not necessarily funky, but rhythmic, and not explicitly riff-centric, if that distinction makes any sense to you. A song like “March By Tens” can hypnotize a listener with its cyclical artrock mesh of low-end patterns, but then just as your ear gets locked into the rhythm of it, the band sucker-punches with a war-cry and destabilizing beat switch.

“Loris” ends with a song called “Teeth of the Arctic Storm” — a title that conjures Frank Frazetta-like images from the golden age of metal. The song is one that shows guitarist Manner’s contribution to the band, with a brooding atmospheric trebly guitar opening that moves into a muscular riff, toggling back and forth between sections that go from dark and skeletal to aggressive.

Case says that, after a summer of tour dates which will take them out to Texas, to L.A., to the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, the band hopes to be writing new songs and recording a new record by the end of 2016.

Irata has settled into its stride, in a way, so it’s unlikely that they’ll scrap the careful assembly of heavy rhythmic components and melodies, but Case says the trio won’t be working to replicate anything they’ve already done.

“I don’t want to keep rehashing the same old stuff,” says Case. !

JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.

WANNA go?

Irata play Greene Street, 113 N. Greene St., Greensboro, Monday, June 13, with Moon Tooth and Ascentia. $6- $8, 8 p.m. greenestreetlive. com.

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