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Charleston's Art Star weirds up mainstream indie guitar rock on debut album

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If there's such a thing as controlled chaos, that's what's happening on Akin to Sin, the debut album by Charleston band Art Star. When asked, the band often refers to what they do as noise rock but their music is more complex and far more melodic than that.

Bassist Christian Starr and drummer Sonny Reyes lay down tangled tempos with pinpoint precision. Over this roiling storm of rhythm, guitarists Joe Suthers and Liz Southwell unleash hell, pounding out barbed wire, visceral riffs that turn themselves inside out.

As riveting as the music is, it all serves to shine the spotlight on singer Mia Mendez, the group's startling and dynamic vocalist. On Akin to Sin's five tracks, she sneers, she screams, she wails, and she occasionally lets out a breathy, blurry delivery that almost makes the quieter moments sound like dream pop.

Most often, Mendez's lyrics are jagged, impressionistic shards, as on the opening track, "A Mythology out of Practice."

"Pricked my tongue on a cactus," she sings, "Left my love on a mattress/ Burnt holes in nylons/ Melted blood in bronze/ I counted my fears/ Collected my tears."

To deliver those evocative phrases, Mendez produces vocals that are somehow both heartfelt and exaggerated for effect, a combination that she readily acknowledges.

"I definitely admire a lot of theatrical vocalists, and I'm a very emotional person," she says. "So I think it's easy to translate that with my vocals. I feel really dramatic, I guess."

Given the power of her performance, it's no wonder that the rest of the band essentially formed Art Star to work with Mendez. Four of the band members played together in various projects before this, but the new group allowed them to move away from the heavier, more extreme music they'd been making and to collaborate with Mendez.

"We'd always wanted to make music with Mia," Starr says. "So it was just an idea to have her in it and explore some genres that we hadn't really had a chance to in our other bands."

"I think we came to the table with open minds," Mendez adds, "and just allowed ourselves to explore different ideas and sounds and be a little bit more experimental."

Art Star purposely took their time writing the songs on Akin to Sin, taking more than a year to flesh them out and arrange them as a group before heading to Legitimate Business recording studio in Greensboro to work with engineer Kris Hilbert. The idea was to take the melodic, straight-ahead elements of pop and rock, then deconstruct them until they were almost unrecognizable.

Almost.

"I think it was Christian who also wanted to tie in some pop feel and more traditional song structure elements," Southwell says. "We'd start songs around these crazier, noisier riffs and work them out into more traditional alternative-style songs. Our entire concept was to throw a wrench in the gears and tangle things up. We like to get weird."

With the riffs and vocals in place, it was the drummer's job to make sure the transitions were effective and unexpected.

"The idea was to have it be familiar but a little jarring or even give people anxiety about what's going to happen next," Reyes says. "I think that juxtaposition is really interesting. What happens a lot of the time when we're writing is that someone will bring a guitar idea, and I like to take what they're bringing to the table and think about the big picture; about how the songs are going to flow from point A to point B. I want to structure the song in a way that I think is interesting to play but also interesting to listen to."

If it sounds like these people really thought out their sound, it's because they did. Before they recorded Akin to Sin, the group sent their demos to Hilbert so he could start thinking about his role in their sound, as well.

"We just wanted to make sure that it wouldn't be a surprise to him what we were going to record," Reyes says, "so he could have his own ideas of how to help us with producing it."

"Kris is such a good friend of ours that recording with him is always a great time," Starr adds. "He's always down for anything, and I don't think that the record would have turned out as well as it did if it wasn't for him being down with being weird."

If their music could be called "weird," the band's approach to their career could be considered even weirder. Art Star didn't play a live show until the summer, around the time their album was released, and Suthers says that the decision, like almost everything else the band does, was deliberate.

"It was really important to have a finished product to present to people before we were playing shows," Suthers says. "We had all these ideas we wanted to pursue, and we felt that it wouldn't be doing the big picture justice if we were to start playing shows before we had recorded material out."

Considering all their serious talk, the members of the band all seem to truly enjoy what they do, and there's a playful side to the group that pops up often in conversation. That's perhaps best summed up by Starr's answer when asked why the band approaches their music the way they do.

"Why not?"

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