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Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro
Nature is metal, as many popular internet memes suggest. But nature’s brutal, titanic forces aren’t exclusive to predators hunting prey or fighting for territory; most of them are invisible to cameras.
“I’m always fascinated with geography,” says Nora Rogers, singer and guitarist of the Chapel Hill-based heavy rock trio Solar Halos. Her lyrics are strung with images inspired by nature’s most awesome and devastating forces: Tectonic plates tear continents apart, floods devastate lowlands, mountains rise in the ocean’s depths.
“I love the way the ocean seems calm, but there’s this awesome, really raw stuff going on underneath,” Rogers says.
Natural phenomena have inspired the band, named after the interaction between sunlight and ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere, since it formed seven years ago. Rogers—a veteran of local acts Curtains of Night, Horseback, and Object Hours—is joined by bassist and singer Eddie Sanchez (Fin Fang Foom, Bellafea, The Love Language) and drummer John Crouch (Caltrop, Horseback). A collection of demo recordings presaged Solar Halos’ self-titled 2014 debut and introduced the band’s patient, nuanced approach to heavy rock, mixing elements of doom metal, heavy psych, and post-rock.
However promising Solar Halos was, Coiled Light, the follow-up the band released in April, exceeds expectations. An assured, controlled album, Coiled Light moves with seismic force, with the band managing restraint, even as dynamic riffs gather into massive swells.
Opening track “The Living Tide” embodies this sensibility. Rogers and Sanchez pull resonant chords into taut phrases while Crouch lunges against the decay. Rogers sings of “The push, the pull / The gain, the loss,” describing tidal forces and, in a way, the band’s own approach to songwriting.
JJ Koczan, who premiered “The Living Tide” on the doom-centric blog The Obelisk, zeroed in on the seeming contradictions in Solar Halos’ swirling bombast.
“You know, usually when you think of something landing like a brick, it’s not a positive image,” he wrote on his blog. “Like the thing—whatever it is—should be flying. Well, Solar Halos land like a brick even as they fly. It’s a dual-persona that’s writ large all over their upcoming second full-length, Coiled Light.”
That dual persona is practically embedded in the process.
“There is this sense that even though we’re in control of what we’re doing, there might not always be an end goal,” Rogers says. “That’s what makes it exciting, and you’re almost letting the song dictate what it needs.”
Writing for the album stretched over three years before the band recorded it in 2017 with Kris Hillbert at Legitimate Business in Greensboro; the intervening time has been spent working to find a label. (The Danish imprint Cursed Tongue ended up answering the call.) Even with a disciplined rehearsal schedule, songwriting for Solar Halos is a detail-oriented process.
“We write collaboratively, and we tend to jam on something [until] two or three parts come together really seamlessly and easily, so we start feeling this false sense of, like, ‘Yeah, this’ll be done soon,’” Rogers says. “And then it takes months before we finish because we’ll hash out every possible idea any one of us suggests. It takes a lot of tinkering.”
That tinkering, through months of jam sessions, scratch recordings, feedback, and trial and error, leads to a deliberate sensibility.
“When we were recording with Kris [Hillbert], after we had tracked a few songs, he was like, ‘This is a lot more proggy than I remember,’” Crouch laughs. “I’m not sure if that was really a conscious thing or not, but it’s certainly a matter of jamming on a part and trying to push it in different directions.”
It’s that restlessness and constant challenging of parameters that makes Solar Halos so hard to pin down. Instead of working against templates of influences or genres, Rogers says of the writing process, “You need to establish the frame of mind and the contrasts of spaciousness and patience and hecticness.” Lyrics emerge in the same way.
“We always write the music first, and then I’ll listen for what images the song evokes and write the lyrics around that,” Rogers says. “Or I’ll see a striking photograph or piece of art and kind of hold that in my mind.”
“Personal Levee,” another standout on Coiled Light, was inspired by a National Geographic image of flooding in Louisiana. Some homes had built levees around their property, effectively protecting the residents from the worst of the floodwaters.
“You create this bubble to hide yourself, but looking at the image, I was imagining it apocalyptically,” Rogers says. “I imagined, ‘What if you build this stuff to protect yourself, to save yourself, and then the water recedes and you have indeed saved yourself and your family, but everything else around you is decimated, and you’re alone?’”
Intentionally evocative and ambiguous, Solar Halos’ lyrics match the pacing of the music, setting a mood more meditative than declarative. Without an obvious narrative or blunt didacticism, even potentially political songs such as “Personal Levee” raise more questions than they answer and leave much to the listener to interpret.
“This batch of songs was written over the course of maybe three years, and that was during some significantly changing times,” Crouch says. “Sonically, and even with the lyrics, I get the impression of these powerful forces and things that are happening out beyond our reach. It can be a frustrating or liberating thing.”
It’s in those dualities—frustration and liberation, salvation and isolation, darkness and light—that Solar Halos dwells. The titanic forces at work within their songs aren’t as obviously brutal as the images of bodily violence that tend to run rampant in heavy music. But these forces, like the songs themselves, are all the more powerful for their mysteries.
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