You can’t erase every trace of a scar, but you can reclaim it as it fades. The pattern becomes a familiar shadow, a blotch-like line from a damaging event that softens over time, a battle wound to remind you that you survived. The scar is semi-permanent, emphasis on the semi. And sometimes, if you have the energy, that scar can be the motivation you needed to prevent other scars from forming in the future.
That’s a process that’s becoming increasingly familiar for Olivia West, the vocalist and primary songwriter of local act Edge Petal Burn. On the band’s long-awaited debut LP, Glass Cannon, she confronts multiple traumatic events from her past with unflinching confidence, the type of delivery that uses stoic lyrics to straighten her posture. Along with guitarists Lea Jaffe and Huxley Rittman, bassist Nicholas Owen, and drummer Jeff Crenshaw, she’s able to use Edge Petal Burn as a powerful outlet to overcome personal and communal struggles.
If her name sounds familiar, there’s a good chance it’s because you listened to Ricecrackers, a now-defunct outlet in which a handful of the band’s members created a similar style of music through a more lighthearted delivery. “I’m glad we’re Edge Petal Burn now because it feels like a reincarnation of Ricecrackers, a band I loved and wanted to be in, but while feeling new,” says Crenshaw. “I was stoked to be asked to join back then and am even more stoked with this new version as Edge Petal Burn.”
A change in name traditionally comes from a newfound desire to reshape an artist’s image. The backstory behind Edge Petal Burn’s moniker follows suit in that way, but it also reaches far deeper than a string of cool-sounding words. While in high school, West studied botany at a local community college in Seattle. When she learned that hydrangeas see their petals burn off when they’re overwatered or left in the cold for too long, she found herself fixated on what the image suggested. “I think plants can teach us a lot about how to interact with people,” says West. “I thought it was a very interesting correlation between trauma and humans, and trauma and plants. I really liked how strong the symbolism was, because I think it represents the importance of tending to things so you don’t lose them.”
Much of Edge Petal Burn’s strength comes from how masterfully it pulls off a heavy, yet fluctuating, sound. The band hurls itself into heavy, almost doom metal-like tones and then employs gothic folk flairs, like the meeting point of Marissa Nadler and Chelsea Wolfe. Strings appear with grace to bring a warmth to the material. Guitars cross over one another without stealing the spotlight, save for the hurling guitar solo on “Water.” Above it all is West, singing with the bravado of artists like Zola Jesus and PJ Harvey.
There’s clearly a classically trained singing style engrained in West’s vocal delivery, but she hits so many different types of singing techniques that, on first listen, it’s difficult to pinpoint where her influences pull from. She attributes that to a variety of lessons she’s taken over the years. At age 8, she learned how to sing from an opera singer who played violin in the Seattle Symphony. Later, she learned traditional folk music with a different teacher, usually for an hour a week. During her final years in high school, West, who is part Korean, studied traditional Korean folk music—a style often sung in the fields or at gatherings—three times a week. By the time she entered Berklee College of Music, West was introduced to Kate Bush by a college professor and quickly became obsessed with her iconic and idiosyncratic style of singing.
“[Korean folk music] was the hardest to learn,” says West. “You have to sing in a powerful, strong, mixed voice, which I really had to learn how to do because I traditionally sing with a soprano voice, not the lower register needed for that. I had to really pump that out because you don’t use microphones. There’s a type of singing where you go between notes powerfully, almost like a trill, which I had to learn how to do. When I got here to Boston, I applied what I knew how to do with my diaphragm and combined it with what I saw at punk shows.”
The uniquely formidable way in which West sings makes her lyrics extremely potent. Though, to be fair, her lyrics are striking on their own. Glass Cannon is the lyrical outlet in which she could address what it’s like living with traumatic brain injury, which she got from softball-related damage to her head and various incidents later over the years. But what resonates more deeply upon listening to the album are the instances where West addresses the physical and emotional abuse she experienced from a recent relationship. Through therapy and journaling, she learned that one of the only ways she could voice the struggles she was going through was through music.
“Unpopular Opinion” wastes no time getting to the heart of things. On it, she directly calls out the ex-partner, a painter, by declaring that you can’t use your own abuse to justify any predatory actions you take. A line like, “Paint your worthless heart out” shakes with the healing power of catharsis, and the way West belts it feels like a small slice of justice is served. Elsewhere, on a song like “Ziggy,” she can ruminate on the more daily elements of her life. Acquaintances passed off her relationship trauma as the result of a chip on her shoulder. These days, she’s proud to fling that invisible chip back at them: “I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, that’s right.”
As cleansing as it is to get these experiences off of her chest now, it took a while to get to this point. It wasn’t until West actually revisited her notebooks that she realized both the emotions described and the gravity of the scenarios annotated had gone over her head at the time.
“When I reread them, it hit me: This is what’s wrong, this is why I’m upset all of the time, this is why I can’t function, these things aren’t normal,” says West. “Once I showed it to friends, they helped confirm that this wasn’t actually okay. It was a reclamation for me. I realized that I can’t change what happened, but I can move on from it. Writing these songs was a way to reclaim my bodily autonomy and reaffirm that I’m a person, I matter, and you can’t do this to me.”
Though it’s West penning her heart out and turning those emotions into bone-rattling sounds onstage and on the record, it’s the rest of the band who helps bring her work as a vocalist to full fruition with the music. There’s an intense balance that goes on in the songwriting process of heavy instruments and light backing harmonies. Edge Petal Burn tries to balance that not only on the record, but in a live setting so as to not wash out to softer elements. There’s lots of pedals, lots of reverb, and lots of effects. Learning how to adapt the studio sound to a live sound takes time, and you can tell each member of the band wants to make sure they perfect it whenever they lock eyes with one another mid-performance.
“This is the first two-guitar band I’ve ever been in,” says Rittman. “We’ve settled into a wonderful balance. I’ve been a solid rock player, so I hold down the rhythmic chunky parts, and Lea is the master of soundscapes. It’s been fun figuring out how to work together on the string front that way.”
“This is the first band I’ve played in as a bass player, too,” adds Owen. “What I love about this band is that I focus on one thing that has way more detail to it, so I try to have the bass fit the music well while also setting foundation and a groove. So this way, the lyrics are connecting with people while the music is something people could get lost in, too.”
When the music and lyrics line up, listeners get to hear the resulting beauty of a record like Glass Cannon. The collaborative effort that the members of Edge Petal Burn pour into their work churns out music that goes beyond a reflection on past trauma and emotional damage, and grows towards a future that learns how to prevent that from happening in the future—and how to accept oneself again after experiencing anything like that to begin with. In that manner, the mere presence of a band like Edge Petal Burn is radical and helpful, a reclamation of loss and belief in the future where each member is there for one another. West knows every member of the band has her back, and each member is eager to confirm that as being true. There’s a safety that comes from being surrounded by hardworking, talented, and loving friends that listen—it’s why the scars West addresses seem to glow, not hide, when Edge Petal Burn launches into the music.
HIT BARGAIN, EDGE PETAL BURN, LEOPARD PRINT TASER, SISTER. TUE 6.19. O’BRIEN’S PUB, 3 HARVARD AVE., ALLSTON. 8PM/18+/$10. OBRIENSPUBBOSTON.COM