Kal Marks are loud. If you don’t know this from listening to their records, you know it from their live shows—even if you’re just passing by the venue. Their massive wall of rock shakes the air inside the venue and seeps outside, creating a menacing, yet inviting, hook that lures you in. Their recent developments let you suspend the disbelief that the Allston trio are brooding pessimists, though. If anything, they’re realists, and the sunny sound that peeks into the corners of their newest album, Universal Care, makes that clear from the get-go. Kal Marks are changing, and they sound comfortable in that change than fans would expect.
On a personal level, it’s to be expected. Singer and guitarist Carl Shane came to terms with his political stances over the last two years, primarily in regards to when and where he doubles down on his lessons or keeps them at bay. Drummer Alex Audette spent time in and out of the hospital over seven months, the sterile confines prompting a newfound appreciation for drumming as a form of healing. Bassist Mike Geacone learned to set his perfectionist tendencies aside, learning to experiment with ease to open the context of the band’s music and their dynamic at large. Together, the trio became both tighter and looser, and that structure lets their trademark sound of death buried in dirt blossom with flowers for the first time.
Universal Care is a high mark in Kal Marks’ career because of how the band welcomes change with excitement and inventiveness. The album bursts with bright guitar tones, slick bass lines, and varied drumming that doesn’t slam as hard as possible at every given chance. The band is still loud. It’s just that their heaviness creeps up on you now. When they take the stage, all three members look like scrawny nerds or people who hunch over their instruments, trying to perfect a difficult chord. Every drum teacher Audette had told him he played way too loud. Those things were obvious on albums like 2013’s Life Is Murder and 2016’s Life Is Alright, Everybody Dies. But while all of this sounds potentially obnoxious, Kal Marks funnel it into a thrilling release, and on Universal Care it feels not like a blaring statement, but a levee breaking from the tension built up behind it.
“We make music that doesn’t come with a brochure, and this one feels like that to the max,” says Shane. “We always get compared to Pile, who are amazing, but I don’t want to be compared to Pile. We get compared to Krill too who, aside from my voice, we sound absolutely nothing alike. We sound like Slayer compared to them. I want to get away from those tags. It would be nice for people to view us as individuals, and in a way making this felt like an obvious statement of such.”
The goal was to make a more colorful, vibrant record, and Kal Marks made that happen. On “Grand Mal,” Geacone used a delay pedal to manipulate his sound. During the title track, bells fade in with a Christmas feel. “Afterlife” makes brief use of an organ. Congas appear during the album opener. Throughout it all, Audette plays with glockenspiel, tambourines, shakers, and more. Utilizing studio time to experiment with instruments paid off. The proof is in Shane using pedal autotune in “Reprise” on his voice, which listeners can feel but struggle to point at because of how masterfully it’s paired with his normal voice.
“The biggest change was taking our time with stuff,” says Geacone. “It gave us time to experiment and toy with items in the studio environment.” It sounds simple, but it’s true, and that patience in the studio is what lent Kal Marks the space to change as much as they did.
The band has Miranda Serra G, who mixed and recorded the record at Mad Oak Studios, to thank for much of it. In the spring of 2016, she approached the trio and asked if she could record their next album. At the time, they had no material, but Shane quickly drafted new material when the tour wrapped. When they contacted her months later, Serra G was still eager to record. By the time they finally entered the studio, she encouraged the band to try new things, set up instruments they side-eyed, and went so far as to let them use a vintage Mellotron—an electromechanical, polyphonic tape keyboard that replays prerecorded sounds.
“We didn’t think it would be functional, honestly,” Audette says of the Mellotron. “That was a night where we got so excited and knew we would be staying late. If you get a chance to use an original Mellotron from 1972 or whenever that was made, use it. It’s the coolest thing.”
“When you’re an engineer, you usually have to work on what’s handed down to you, regardless if you like it or not,” says Shane. “There’s projects with rich yuppies who view music as their side project. When she approached us, I think it’s because she was interested in our sound and how heavy it is. She had a vision of sorts, and I think she helped us shape it.”
Yet Kal Marks couldn’t shake their shadowed core if they tried. Shane’s lyrics offer a sobering side to the album, whether he’s screaming about global warming or toasting heaven, because of the pain he went through over the last two years. Two of Shane’s good friends died from drug overdoses. One burned in a fire. On top of that, everyone was depressed. “This is back in 2016, too,” he says with a laugh. “They thought 2016 was the worst year ever—which I knew then, and we all know now, isn’t true—and were crushed to the point of overdrinking. In a way, I felt myself pushing back. I didn’t want to be fucking bummed out. I didn’t want to lose.”
Shane vividly recounts a phone call with his mother, a graduate of the naval academy and veteran, who still works as a nurse. During it, he said he wished he could “make music that would make people feel good.” Universal Care didn’t turn out that way exactly, as a lot of the record is grim and the band’s music will always rep that, but he wanted to write a song essentially saying, “Hey, let’s give life a shot.” So he did.
“Everything seems pretty fucked up, but I want to give a shit. I want to give life a try. If you live your life depressed and sink into your bed, you’re still living. You’re just living shittily,” says Shane. “My mom is very caring, but she’s also very tough. It’s an interesting duality that she has cemented in my head. Being in that profession, you have to be tough enough to see people die all the time. My friends dying still affects me—it hurts, a lot—but after the fifth semi-close acquaintance lost, that pain turns into a toughness.”
Now that the album is out, Kal Marks just want the album to offer help to those who need it. The band doesn’t want to be cheerleaders. They just want to encourage listeners, and by taking a realistic approach to the throes of life, Kal Marks made songs that sound honest and promising no matter how dark their instrumental parts get. That’s where the experimentation comes into play, and it’s why Universal Care feels like both the happiest Kal Marks has ever been and the most honest in their portrayal of life.
“Music is too much fun to do one thing,” Shane says in summation. “It really is a playground, and we’ve finally climbed in to goof around. Why not put a heavy, sludge riff to a Stevie Wonder vibe on drums? I don’t understand why musicians would be afraid of that, and I’m glad we aren’t anymore.”
KAL MARKS, NICE GUYS, BAT HOUSE, FURANIMAL. SAT 3.10. MASSASOIT ELKS LODGE, 55 BISHOP ALLEN DR., CAMBRIDGE. 8PM/ALL AGES/$12. FACEBOOK.COM/KALMARKS