Big drum theory
Portland psych outfit Abronia rallies ’round the drum
‘The Great Divide”—the eight-minute instrumental opener on Abronia’s debut album—begins with a spaghetti western guitar line pulled right out of Ennio Morricone’s treasure chest, before the band pilots the track from the scalding Mexican terrain up into the outer limits of deep space. Obsidian Visions/Shadowed Lands keeps zigging and zagging from there, taking listeners on a slow-burning trip through psych, krautrock and even doom metal.
It’s hard to believe that this Portland six-piece—which includes guitars, saxophone, lap steel and melodica—was essentially started with a drum in mind. Guitarist Eric Crespo formed Abronia in 2015 with the vision of a large drum as the centerpiece; and that’s exactly what he created. Abronia—with all of its moving parts—centers around a 32-inch marching drum turned on its side. It makes for a communal feel onstage for the members, but drummer James Shaver’s restrained, tribal thud makes way for the other instruments to shine.
“It allows the other instruments to have conversations,” explained vocalist/saxophonist Keelin Mayer.
Rhythmic simplicity is something Crespo has wanted for some time, and so it made sense to not only keep the setup simple, but also to enlist someone to play whose primary instrument isn’t actually drums. It goes back to Crespo’s previous band, Ghost to Falco, in which he was constantly trying to restrain drummers.
“Part of it was solving that,” he said. “Also, rhythm is what people think about last in rock bands—it’s fun to throw that off.”
And while Abronia’s music veers left of center, the songs are still tightly constructed. The band recorded Obsidian Visions/Shadowed Lands in just a couple of days, with the five songs—each averaging more than six minutes—assembled and ready. “Shala” simmers slowly along a back road with Mayer’s vocals and Andrew Endres’ lap steel floating above. Mayer lets the sax skronk loose on “Smoke Fingers,” while “Glass Butte Retribution” builds into an apocalyptic doom dirge, with Mayer’s vocals becoming equally unhinged. Through the layers of noise, melodies sneak through, although it’s not necessarily on purpose.
“I don’t think of music in terms of hooks, but I think I kind of naturally do it,” Crespo said, adding that the kernels of songs come to him through other channels. “When I write, it makes me remember dreams—that’s a good starting point.”
Every member contributes, which Crespo says makes the songwriting process a little more drawn out. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. Abronia also includes guitarist Benjamin Blake and bassist Amir Amadi (Rick Pedrosa plays pedal steel for live shows). Hearing the record is one thing; seeing the band pull it off live is what makes Abronia’s music otherworldly.
Against all economic factors, it’s all hands on deck when the band tours—Crespo says he initially pictured having up to 10 members. He settled for six but made sure that, along with a big drum, there was a sax, pedal steel and a melodica (a small keyboard with a mouthpiece like the one bandleader Jon Batiste plays on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert).
“I knew this band wouldn’t sound right unless it was big.”