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Review: Ume at DC’s Rock and Roll Hotel

Written By | Aug 15, 2014

WASHINGTON, August 15, 2014 – The press reports surrounding Ume’s live show would lead one to believe that this band is a perpetual face-melter of rock. During their recent performance here at DC’s Rock and Roll Hotel, that advance PR didn’t necessarily prove true. But what really happened instead was considerably more interesting and, at times, genuinely awe-inspiring.

When a band fronted by a woman occupies the hard rock stratosphere – as Ume is with guitarist/lead singer Laura Larson – the hyperbole machine begins to crank, and the press starts to make them sound a lot harder and more metal than they actually are.

Predictably, weird comparisons in the press to other male fronted rock acts unspool like clockwork in a manner supposedly justifying Ume’s place in the firmament. But it all ends up feeling reductive and tedious.

Just as today’s media insists on treating all politics as a horserace, pop music writers beat the same old dead horse of gender comparison because it saves them the trouble of having to think and reflect. Better to use the same random measuring stick that worked the last time.

Such is the strange dichotomy that a band like Ume’s existence creates in rock music, because the band exists entirely on its own terms and not those that have been conveniently laid out in advance.

This isn’t to say Ume isn’t aggressive and loud. But that puts them in a bubble they don’t necessarily inhabit all the time, especially on stage. The band covers a lot more ground than that while casually crossing between rock genres and shifting tempos at their whim, often combining this all into a well-crafted package for individual songs. From the first song of their set, Ume exudes potential for what’s to come during the rest of the night, and what follows is a uniquely distinctive rock experience.

The way the band carries themselves on stage leads one to realize that hard rock/metal comparisons here are virtually interchangeable. Ume’s appearance on stage is specifically that of a metal, almost to the point of distraction. It’s so easy to be immersed in their sound and get lost in their hard rock rhythms, that they end up leaving behind an indelible impression long after they’ve finished playing.

Ume is what happens when a band perfectly melds hard rock and metal into a seamless alloy that transcends the nature of its individual components. They don’t play at a particularly fast pace. Instead, they weave through an intricate labyrinth of riffing en route to a definitive, crunching sound.

There’s a subtle hint here and there that they’re playing harder as each song progresses. But they never quite break. Instead, they blast out more complex rock compositions as they move along.

In many respects, this isn’t an easy band to understand. But it doesn’t really matter when one is listening to them live. They never lose anything in their song structure.

In their few, lighter moments, suggest they could easily be an excellent pop/rock band. If they wanted to. All of this has to do with Ume’s deft touch with everything they play.

It’s easy to see where they could have fallen into musical clichés more than once during their set. This in turn would give the audience what they expect, in a manner of speaking, since after all, Ume always feels like a band that’s been heard so many times before—even if it hasn’t been.

But this feeling is fleeting. Ume never quite settles on the expected, instead turning everything on its ear time and time again. Of course most if not all of this falls on the metaphorical shoulders of front woman Laura Larson, as the focus is never far from her in every moment of Ume’s set. Everything the band does – although not all that makes them unique – hinges on the way she plays, from her riffing chops to her solid vocals.

Larson’s vocals are eventually what ties everything together into the unforgettable package listeners experienced here at the Rock and Roll Hotel. When she first started singing, she registered as a low melodic hum.

What’s strange is that even when she raised her voice, that sensation never seemed to change. Often, it felt as if she should break out into a primal scream, but that never quite happened. She essentially sticks with the same rhythmic hum throughout, adding a necessary bit of consistency to each song.

This simply serves to emphasizer how Ume, as a band, exceeds any sort of expectation. By all accounts, as their set progressed at the Rock and Roll Hotel, they should have taken musical sides, choosing between hard rock and metal, or at least have shown their hand as to which way they prefer to lean. But they didn’t. This is a band that has decided to never take an easy route, and the audience genuinely benefits from their approach.

Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer. He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years. Currently he lives in Vienna, VA. He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.