Fresh Tracks – Observing “Vows”

by 1320Elements

The Band That Uses Ideas As A Map

In 2012, the future sound of American music has never before been so difficult to map. So many contemporary ideas, already deeply rooted and expressed in post 9/11 anxieties, are precocious, experimental and daring.

The first indication that new directions would be intuitive, exploratory and unexpected came with bands like Explosions in the Sky. Later on, the sound of Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses and Vampire Weekend floated pleasantly across the Atlantic to UK where listeners were startled to hear utterly non-generic pop music.

There are delightful variations upon popular themes for sure, but it is the spirit of adventure that is attractive. In the hands of the Young Americans contemporary music is being steered away from the formulaic and returned to a love of form. It dares once more to be different.

Vows are from New Jersey and they are emblematic of this current, highly reflective thinking. They are essentially a duo who are part of a wider collective that coalesces and dissolves as needs and wants arise. They also use thin disguises in the shape of improbable pseudonyms. It’s as if the act of expression requires the individual identity to be sublimated and suppressed in order for their bravely honest work to be more clearly visible.


The tunes feature hypnotic repeating figures and sweeping musical gestures that suggest  enormous, humbling landscapes dominated by awe-inspiring forests and mountains. It also hints that we might be a little lost in the world whenever we become aware of our own smallness. The songs are carefully structured and arranged to feel as if the moments of surprise are spontaneous. That is adroit. So too is the rather daring use of discord here and there. Brian Wilson’s famous meanderings into those deep dark woods took him to the brink of ridicule. Here, his legacy is a creative world where bands like Vows don’t feel the need for permission to play as they feel and compose as they see fit.

This music is an altogether different take on Americana but it rightfully takes its place alongside more conventional forms. In the future though, this music will inevitably become a convention in itself and be marked out as being as quintessentially American as Hank Williams or The Beach Boys. Vows are part of that evolution and only they have any clue where it will take them. They are holding the map.

In January 2011, New Jersey natives James Hencken and Jeff Pupa got together to form Vows.  Their debut album of songs, Winter’s Grave, was self-recorded and self-produced, and released for free digital download in April 2011. Vows was born as a recording project between Pupa (aka Bone Blanket) and Hencken (aka Nillo) in a conscious attempt to deviate from the acoustic singer/songwriter template for creating new material.

The two experimented by layering synth, organs, and piano tracks interleaved with ambient guitar sounds to create something more akin to an environment for the song. They also used different techniques for miking and recording each drum individually so that an empowered percussion enjoys an elevated role above mere backbeat.

By the end of  2011 they had been joined by longtime friends and active recording artists’ Sabeel Azam – lead guitar, backup vocals; Scott Soffer – bass; and Ryan Ward – drums, percussion, backup vocals.  Pupa is the principal vocalist and plays guitar while Hencken plays keyboards, synth, and supplemental percussion. “We had to translate this album Winter’s Grave from this unforeseen ‘no-expectations’ little project into a band, and we went with the people we grew up playing music with.  We had no idea it would become such an evolving and organic experience in sound”, continues Pupa.

Vows are now consolidated as a touring band and they have pledged to further embrace variation and innovation in their live performances. That statement of intent, straight from the band’s bio, tells you that the audience will be part of the journey too. Go see the cartographers at their craft.

The Curator, June 2012