The crashing catharsis of West Philly noise-rock duo King Azaz
You're going to wish you'd invested in a pair of Panasonics from the corner bodega the moment King Azaz's big, meaty sound comes tumbling through those tinny earbuds that came with your iPhone.
You’re going to wish you’d invested in a pair of Panasonics from the corner bodega the moment King Azaz’s big, meaty sound comes tumbling through those tinny earbuds that came with your iPhone.
Tunnels, the duo’s debut EP, is a barbed-wire mesh of guitars, colossal percussion and angular angst that belies the band’s admitted influences — The Jesus Lizard, Cat Power, Hole and, as drummer Sarah Schardt puts it, “an immediate need to rebel against [her hometown sound]” i.e. the jangly twee infections of Chapel Hill — and turns this crashing, dust-in-the-bathwater noise into a vicious, iconoclastic assault.
But to look at these Philly punks — Christopher Johnson, the singer and guitarist, weepy, beautiful eyes and baby dreads; Schardt, the aforementioned drummer, shy and kind of wafting through space as a figment — you’d never suspect a full, raging storm lurking just behind them somewhere over the punk rock horizon.
“Both of us are pretty introverted, quiet people but we often need to let some shit out,” Johnson says of King Azaz’s cathartic sound. “At one point I had to move back home and in that time I was very depressed. I started writing songs in my mom’s basement. After having a lot of relationships that failed, I felt the songs were coming from a really angry and dark place.”
Ultimately that anger and isolation would become the heart of songs like “Graveyards,” where a sinister, snaking guitar riff gives way to a fuzzed out, nearly ecstatic blast of post-punk mayhem, only to further give way to the borderline sleazy and infectious romp of “For Lovers and Hypocrites.”
One thing that separates King Azaz, though, from other noise-rock bands is the members’ intimate, ride-or-die relationship with both the scene and each other.
“Punk has a lot of connotations or superficiality attached to it,” Johnson says. “But what I see in the Philly punk scene we are a part of is a political ideology, a way of existing in the world that is anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-oppression.”
More than that, King Azaz is a necessary booster shot for a scene that, for all intents and purposes, can be somewhat bro-y. Both members identify as queer and anarchist; in the nurturing underground of West Philadelphia, they’ve managed to find a voice, a place where their idiosyncrasies and intersecting identities can be given a proper stage, informing — and not hiding behind — the music.
“Queerness is very essential to our identity as a band, and as friends,” says Johnson. “Our lyrics may not focus on queerness necessarily, but as people, just being aware of what kind of role masculinity and gender plays in punk scenes and like, actively fighting it is very important to us. We talk about these things with other radical, like-minded people at shows where most of the people are on the same page.”
In The Phantom Tollbooth (“My favorite book!” Schardt exclaims), the caustic character King Azaz the Unabridged is obsessed with words, but this soft-spoken two-piece has, to this point, chosen to eschew much contact with the outside world.
The strategy for King Azaz (the band) has been to remain immersed in a community that has helped them grow. They’ve played only a handful of shows, but have managed to get their snarling swirl imbedded in the minds of many folks teetering on the edge of the Philly underground.
“An active resistance is avoiding [the bro-mentality] at shows. Like, I’m not going to talk to people and change people’s minds because that takes too much energy, too much time, in that context.” says Johnson.
Adds Schardt: “In that sense I think Philly has really shaped King Azaz. [Being] a part of a radical scene has definitely influenced us.”
Sat., June 13, 3 p.m., with Nightmom, CRABE, The Heads Are Zeros and Free Cake for Every Creature, LAVA Space, 4134 Lancaster Ave., 215-387-615, lavazone.org.