REVIEW: FAMILIARS ~ DIGEST SELF

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When a band breaks up it’s not as if its members simply disappear into nothingness, with a few exceptions most times band members go off and make other music or at the very least other art somewhere else. Think back to the Pacific Northwest in the 80’s and how many bands broke up and went on to form even greater bands. When Kithkin broke up back in 2015 I tried to convince myself the consolation was that each member was moving on to do other amazing things. Bob Martin had already begun performing as Bigfoot Wallace and His Wicked Sons with Ian McCutcheon on drums, Alex Barr was writing music with Kendra Cox as KA, Kelton Sears was soon to become the music editor for the Seattle Weekly. I don’t know this for certain but it seemed like the break up of Kithkin hit Ian particularly hard, I think back to a shot I took at that final show for the band at Chop Suey, Ian with his hand reaching out to me as he sang the lines “I know – I hope” with so much pain on his face. So when I got an email from Ian announcing Digest Self the debut album from his new band Familiars I was really happy, but that turned quickly to ecstatic when I got to hear the music.

Where do I start? Kithkin’s Live at the Banana Stand album that was released in 2016 over a year after their final show. The album featured the expected songs from their album Rituals… but a handful of new ones as well, and I think we can all assume that this was the direction they were headed, a sound with heavier synthesizer and that 80’s new wave guitar. I can’t go so far to say that Digest Self is the immediate continuation of that sound but I would say that the digital synthesizer blare of the album started even if subtly and subconsciously back with those newer Kithkin songs.

What Ian did tell me in an email was that with the Kithkin disbandment and the death of a family member he started to explore digital music of the 80’s and 90’s while going on a bit of a rediscovery. He quit his job, cut and dyed his hair, and hiked through the state of Maine with his sister while listening to the Odyssey. When he returned to the Pacific Northwest he began writing an album about change.

Thanks in part to a recent resurgence in 80’s and 90’s nostalgia led by shows like Stanger Things that boast a synthed-up score and soundtrack a slowly growing movement of Neo-new wave and Digital synth has started exploding. What Ian puts together here is perfectly crafted gothic new wave that feels very relevant and nostalgic at the same time. The album begins with Swollen Smile that blasts heavy synth before transitioning into a moody slow dance. While there is plenty of mood in this album what it does best is skirt that line between 80’s pop and that gothic sound, something you can move your body to, just in that introspective kind of way.

Ian turned to his friend and former bandmate Bob Martin to engineer the album while locked away in an A-frame cabin near Mt. Rainier. The album is fun in places like Snake and Eye Contact which have the qualities of total dance hall jams. And it’s here that I must mention Ian’s vocals. I’ve been pretty open about the fact that I was not a big fan of Kithkin’s sound to start and part of that might have been Ian’s vocals which initially I didn’t think meshed well with the tree punk sound the band was cultivating. Eventually I came around and found those almost affected vocals to be part of the charm. When it comes to the sound of Familiars Ian’s vocals slide in like they were always supposed to be there, they have a similar sterile sound as the synth.

In the year after the initial tracking Ian worked on putting together a band that includes Olivia White, Cameron Walden, and Will Segerstrom as well as putting the final recording touches on the album. Familiars is perhaps the most excited I been about a new band in quite a while, not just because of how polished the initial album is but because it seems that the potential is practically endless. When your favorite bands break up that talent is merely dispersed into all its members and with Digest Self Ian McCutcheon is putting it all on full display.

Digest Self is out now on Plume Records you can find it at familiars.bandcamp.com. I could sit here and tell you how this album while partly a piece of nostalgic brilliance I think that what really matters is that it feels particularly relevant right now. Go get it.

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