Distilled Umbravox

There are moments in the Sacramento music scene that remind us how great music can be. Sometimes it doesn’t take much. A vibrant stage performance. A great instrumentalist. A dash of multimedia. Truly remarkable songwriting. These things can take a performance from the mediocre to the sublime, pulling it from the sometimes-undifferentiated haze of local music and lifting it above that gray zone back into vibrant Technicolor.

So it was, almost, last Thursday night at the Distillery, where Umbravox performed a loud, complex set that was close to genius.

Umbravox is the brainchild of Sean Hayashi, a local songwriter who, for the past couple of years, has played sporadically in the Sacramento area, most recently backed by members of Low Flying Owls and Birthday at the Old Ironsides Halloween show. His new band, featuring Brent Wiggans on drums and Jacob Chilton on bass, showcases not only Hayashi’s emotive vocals and interesting guitar work, but also the complexity of the songs themselves. Shifting time signatures keep the material interesting, and each song—most more than six minutes long—features moments of tight, syncopated rhythms that, at times, are reminiscent of 1970s progressive rock act Yes but without the cheesy spaceship imagery.

The downside of the evening was the venue itself. The Distillery tends to be a difficult place to hear all but the very loudest of bands. In large part, this is because of the layout of the room itself; the bar is close to the stage area, meaning that the drinking chatter (sometimes quite loud) tends to distract people from the music. When bands are extremely loud, this drawback is easily overcome. For a band like Umbravox, though, the potential subtleties of a live performance are lost in an effort to overcome bar noise through sheer volume.

This may have been the reason for the only significant problem with the evening’s performance: about midway through, the set began to feel pedestrian, even though it wasn’t. The same elements that appeared stunningly original during the first few numbers began to wear after the show’s midpoint. The problem was one of dynamics. The set itself was solid, but, ultimately, Umbravox lacked the dynamic range that could have elevated it beyond the norm. The show’s only relatively quiet moment, a standard-time ballad titled “The Great Sadness,” was a welcome respite from the show’s uniform tempo and volume. It was a reminder of what Umbravox could be and hopefully will become. Unfortunately, this moment, like all quiet moments at the Distillery, had to complete with the loud laughter and conversation noise coming from the bar.

The elements are all there—a solid, interesting rhythm section and some of the most interesting songwriting in the area—but, in the end, it began to seem like so much of the same: a Jeff Buckley tribute show played by a band that could, and should, be so much more.