From queering metal to subverting rock, musician alaska B has built a career defying the rules
'If you can't fit the prescribed path, it opens you up creatively because you're forced to carve your own path
Fun fact: alaska B is the only subject in our Queer (Self) Portrait series to have painted on both sides of the glass. Not surprising from someone who has built an artistic career breaking the rules and taking great pleasure in doing so.
alaska B is a founding member and drummer for YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN, a "psychedelic noh-wave opera group" that fuses Japanese musical drama, J-pop and C-pop with noise, metal and folk. The musical influences largely stem from the group's cultural roots — historically, members of the band are of East Asian, Pacific Islander or Indigenous heritage. The resulting sound is what the band calls "a multidisciplinary hyper-orientalist cesspool of 'east' meets 'west' culture clash" — a description perhaps as revealing of their music as it is their sense of humour.
To call YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN a band feels like an understatement. Each album has its own storyline, beautifully-designed artwork (created by alaska B herself) and some of their shows are performed as elaborate "mini-operas" complete with costumes, makeup and intricately designed papercraft sets. The group has also written an actual full-length "drag-rock" opera, 33, which was performed at the 2012 Rhubarb Festival.
The drama, the loudness, the drag: all of it carries a certain queer sensibility. For aaska B, this is all about the band's love of spectacle — something she attributes to queer culture: "Historically, there is something about rock and metal that feels inherently queer — the style, the makeup, the rebellion against the established norms," she says. "It's a celebration of flamboyancy and spectacle. It's that defiant attitude of 'Tell me not to look or act this way and I'll do it even louder' that makes it queer for me."
Music, for me, has really given me a place to put my hopes and dreams — a safer kind of form than walking into the world.- alaska B, musician
This joy of subverting social and cultural scripts is something alaska B discusses in her Queer (Self) Portrait video. Growing up in Alberta and making her way through the local metal music scene, she's no stranger to being the only queer, woman or person of colour in the room. Yet this experience of otherness, though challenging, has empowered her with a sense of freedom: "If you can't fit the prescribed path, it opens you up creatively because you're forced to carve your own path."
From the album artwork to the storylines to the performance art, YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN create an entire experience for an audience member. Their music is available for purchase here or for streaming on Spotify. You can start by listening to their second album, Uzu, which was a shortlisted nominee for the 2014 Polaris Music Prize.
A special shoutout to YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN member Brendan Swanson for helping us on this video.
Queer (Self) Portraits was born out of director Gabrielle Zilkha's participation in this year's 10X10 Photography Project. 10X10 is an annual art exhibit and book curated by James Fowler and produced each year to mark Pride Month. Each year, ten queer and trans photographers are selected to take portraits of ten queer and trans people whom they wish to celebrate for their contributions to the arts. Watch the full series here!