Lillye – Reinventing the Deal
Review By Michael Aronovitz
Virginia Lillye is the lead vocalist for the breakout band Lillye, and when we get our hands on their debut album Evolve, scheduled for worldwide release through Eclipse Records May 18th, 2018, it will be the glorious unveiling of a bizarre superstar. Virginia Lillye is not a “front person.” She is not a “singer” either. She is a force, a hurricane, pick your metaphor, and the best thing about this project (among many other factors) is their unabashed fearlessness in creating a bold and fresh sort of vision.
First off, the band is more than competent. Bennet Livingston is an accomplished drummer whose intricate and dynamic style would be appreciated in pop metal or deathcore, jazz or even the world’s greatest marching band. Christian Lauria’s bass pops and slaps with a technique that seems to tether him to Livingston like a brother from another mother, and Matt Ellis comes up with guitar riffs and licks that are not only satisfying to listen to on a platform of production, but also through a lens of technique.
Compulsories and introductions established, all the pleasantries completed.
Now, let’s talk Virginia.
Fucking-A, girlfriend can sing, my friends, and she comes at you from a number of angles. First, she has a distinguished theater background, schooled in singing, dance, and the stage since childhood. In her early twenties, she earned major roles in popular musicals throughout Europe, like Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, Grease, and Fame, and transitioning to rock, she fronted numerous bands at corporate events. Her “Lillye” project, based in Sydney Australia was born of “chance” meetings with Lauria, while recording at his Machine Men Studios, but I would argue that Virginia Lillye’s eventual choice of hard rock as a megaphone remains anything but random.
The alternative metal genre gives this bold vocalist freedom, and when you offer liberty to a tsunami, you’d best get ready for the thunder, lightning, wind-storms, and tidal waves. And it is not just her “instrument.” Personally, I am not a vocal coach, so I would be hard pressed to offer you a list of this talented performer’s specific singing techniques. I don’t know the various terms for the curls, scale-work, runs, trills, and tie-offs that singers perfect over a lifetime, but I know pitch. I know range and dynamics and power, and Virginia Lillye is one of the best vocalists I have ever heard in rock, if we’re talking strict sound. Her mid-range is massive and her high-end rasp and finish rivals Nancy Wilson and Lzzy Hale, the latter of which is my current favorite hard rock artist, period.
But it is not just the instrument.
It’s the writing.
Now, let’s get this straight. Right here and right now. If you are looking for the vocal hooks that you grew up on, dancing in front of your mirror with a hairbrush to sugary, predictable melodies, you’re in the wrong place. Virginia Lillye is hacking new wood here, so if you’re not in the mood for a hard dose of bold pioneering, go back to the supermarket and pick up some oatmeal, some salt-less crackers…maybe some caffeine-free Lipton. If you want to feel like you’d been in a vast wasteland of cracked desert hardpan and then suddenly received a cold slap of fresh mountain water straight in the face, then Evolve is the album to put on your list. Now.
I am not trying to be obtuse here. Frankly, Virginia Lillye’s vocal lines are…different. Strange. Alternates that don’t normally go with the chords you are hearing, most often in the verses. Of course, the band has awesome hooks in the chorus-work that are bound to sell lots of records, but my main interest is in Virginia Lillye’s clear willingness in the other sections to reinvent musical patterning, with a vocal presentation so overpowering, that the listener wonders if it was always supposed to be this way.
Her vocal lines are not dissonant. They are surprising. They are never out of pitch, but they make us reconsider which chords and notes are supposed to go together…all packaged with a band that is so tight and so sure, that we almost want to throw away all our favorite classic records and start over. With her. To the sound of an angel armed with an alarm siren, taking us off the reservation and re-mapping the wilderness.
Listen to their single, “Run,” or better, watch the video. Visually interesting, they take us through what appears to be a self-made video game fantasy, where Virginia winds up playing two characters fighting each other: Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. Nice. A winner for sure in terms of the optics, but listen to the music here. The band is not shy. Virginia’s vocal has a pop and swag along with the syncopated drums that is freshly purposeful, delivered with absolutely no fear, no hesitation. At first, you are trying to figure out where they are going to go with the musical theme, but like many of the songs on the record (like “Chained” and “Brittle Glass”) Virginia keeps us in a state of disequilibrium until delivering the choral hook with power and fanfare, a writing technique of which I am all too familiar.
Since I am a horror writer I use this method constantly in the attempt to enrich the reading experience with discomfort and payoff, yet the more popular example might be the work of Charlie Brooker with his Black Mirror series. I teach my college students that there are three forms of irony: verbal, situational, and dramatic, the last of which comes through a scenario where we know something the characters do not. Of course, this exemplifies thousands of slasher movies that have the girl upstairs about to go into the basement where we know the masked serial killer is lurking by the splash basins, but Virginia Lillye, like Brooker, works a sort of doubled dramatic irony. In Brooker’s case, he gives us, for example, in season 2, Episode 2, a character in White Bear, who doesn’t know who she is. Neither do we. The viewing experience is a state of disequilibrium for everyone involved with colorful action, frights, starts, and jumps, until it is all explained to us in the end in glorious theater.
Virginia Lillye holds us in similar suspense. She invents diverse patterns and disquieting channels through which to run her verse lines, and by the time the payoff comes in the chorus, we have already redefined the superstructure. Or rather, Virginia has done so. She took us along for the ride, and now the landscape looks different.
Trust me, the changes are not subtle.
They are beautiful gouges, aesthetic furrows, because she didn’t use a detail brush and a scalpel, my friends. She brought a fucking bulldozer, and the fun part, is that listening to her music, you feel like you were up in the cab with her, hitting the accelerator, yanking the steering wheel, and throwing the gears with all that you had.
MHF Magazine/Michael Aronovitz