By Rebecca Bulnes
By Lee Zimmerman
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The technology gremlins have been playing hob with Lycia. During a show in Philadelphia two and half weeks ago, the band's keyboards, a critical ingredient in its dark, ethereal sound, winked in and out. Then, during the same set, without any apparent provocation, the drum machine, another critical ingredient, shifted into interstellar overdrive, cranking out beats at a heart-palpitating rate. "It just started doing the speed-metal thing," laughs Mike Van Portfleet, Lycia's guitarist-vocalist-songwriter. "When we play live now we're so reliant on technology -- and sometimes problems develop." Uh-huh. And not only with the sound equipment. Lycia's smoke machine, a critical ingredient in its visual presentation, also went on the fritz recently. What's a goth guy to do?
Soldier on. Van Portfleet notes that the quirks in the keyboards and drum machine appear to have been ironed out, and that he's endeavoring to fix the smoke machine. So with any luck, by the time Lycia pulls into Squeeze on Wednesday, July 19, the band's hardware should be user-friendly. On tour in support of its new double-CD, The Burning Circle and Then Dust, released on the suburban L.A.-based Projekt imprint, Lycia -- Van Portfleet, bassist-programmer David Galas, and keyboardist-singer Tara Van Flower -- creates moody, dreamy soundscapes that exist out on the instrumental horizon where gothic, ambient (in its old sense), and electronic musics bleed into each other. On top of this shimmeringly gloomy sound, Van Portfleet layers his raspy, almost whispered vocals, mostly consisting of doomy imagery. If you need an aural reference point, think of the Cure's brilliantly depressive 1989 meditation on slipping into the abyss, Disintegration, minus Robert Smith's little-boy-lost wail.
"We actually don't consider ourselves gothic," explains Van Portfleet, speaking over the phone from a northern New Jersey hotel room, "or do what a gothic band does." But he also admits that when pressed to define Lycia's sound, he often has difficulty neatly encapsulating it. "Usually I describe it as moody, reflective electronic music. A lot of people hear it and say, 'It sounds like film music.'"
A fair appraisal, actually. Over the course of two hours, Burning Circle moves across a chilly, forbidding emotional landscape, which Lycia sculpts with guitars, synths, and drum machines that have been channeled through an effects box turned up to the proverbial eleven. The album doesn't convey a narrative story line so much as it implies a gradual transformation, opening with the creepy "A Presence in the Woods" and slowly moving toward a catharsis on the next-to-last track, "The Burning Circle," which gives way to the closing cut, the marginally optimistic "The New Day."
"The lyrics are pretty much me sitting there writing down whatever's coming off the top of my head," says Van Portfleet. "I don't try to sit down and be really poetic. In the long run, when I look back at my songs, I can see the lyrics represent whatever mood I was in at the time. But when I'm working on the songs, it's just sort of words coming out randomly. And any kind of meaning to the lyrics is definitely subconscious at the time."
Van Portfleet's past moods, a Lycia listener reasonably might assume, generally have been of the bummed-out variety, something he readily acknowledges. The group's first three albums -- 1989's Wake, 1991's Iona, and 1993's -- Day in the Stark Corner -- all of which Van Portfleet recorded solo, evince a relentless despondency, especially the latter. If anything, the new Burning Circle, despite its overall darkness, represents a break from Lycia's pervasive cosmic cloudiness. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that Galas participated in the recording, bringing elements to the band's sound that, Van Portfleet allows, "I wouldn't have thought of." And part of it can be attributed to a slight increase in Van Portfleet's bonhomie barometer. In fact two back-to-back songs midway through disc one, "Pray" and "The Better Things to Come," sound positively joyous by Lycia standards. "They are without a doubt the happiest things you'll ever hear me write in my entire life," says Van Portfleet with a little laugh. "Initially, I was going to take 'Better Things to Come' off the album because I thought it stood out too much. But for some reason, in the end I said no A somehow in my mind it fits with the overall feel of the album."
Van Portfleet created Lycia in 1988 during a less sanguine patch in his life, after doing time as a guitarist in a succession of gothlike indie bands in the Phoenix area. Disappointment after disappointment brought him to the cusp of chucking the whole idea of making music, but he says he'd promised himself to try composing solo before completely bowing out. "In the spring of '88, I said, 'Okay, this is my time.'" So he hunkered down with a four-track recorder, guitar, and sundry electronics for several months and began writing. Eventually his musical tinkering turned into Wake, released first on the tiny Orphanage label, then re-released by Projekt, a haven for darkling, ambient bands. The aforementioned Iona and A Day in the Stark Corner followed, as well as a 1994 live album (LIVE) that documented Lycia's first tour.