Ekumen’s self-titled debut opens with a guitar line that descends so quickly it could induce vertigo, as vocalist AL (the members of Ekumen have asked to be listed by initials) howls, “We said we’d never give up, we said we’d never give in”—a twist on a cliche hardcore punk refrain. The way the line is phrased—“we said we’d do this”—creates the expectation of failure, but AL subverts that assumption: “The strange thing about it,” she says in the next line, “I don’t know that we did.”
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It’s a trenchant observation from an adult participating in a youth culture that has an occasionally unhealthy obsession with moral purity. J, Ekumen’s bassist, explains further: “Time goes on, you’re working a shitty job, playing music very few people care about, going to shows and knowing fewer and fewer peers—it starts to feel, at least in my experience, like you dove head first into something [punk rock] that gradually started feeling more and more constricting.” Now, as older and wiser musicians, the members of Ekumen have found focus in abandoning the expectations of their younger selves. “I think Ekumen is the punkest thing I’ve ever done, because I’m old and wise enough to legitimately, really, truly, not care about what other people think about it,” drummer I says.
Hardcore bands are known for their musical economy, but Ekumen’s burly take on ‘90s post-hardcore—forged during their founders’ previous stints in the New Orleans and D.C. scenes—is especially efficient. The majority of the album’s 11 songs clock in under two and a half minutes, and mostly consist of wiry guitar (courtesy of A and C) and propulsive bass, anchored by I’s nimble drumming, and AL’s scornful vocals. It’s a tense, frustrating record with few moments of catharsis, as befitting of an album focused on issues which lack easy solutions. The album reaches its dark climax on “Gaal,” where AL bleakly mutters, “How do you write about the worst of your life?” over crashing guitar. There’s a line from sci-fi novelist Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness that keeps coming to mind: “To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.” Ekumen let their question hang in the air, unresolved.
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Ekumen take their name and song titles from the Hainish Cycle, a loosely-connected, immensely-beloved series by Le Guin. As I explains, “Ekumen is a sort of universal league of nations for those who have found peace on their planet. It was apropos when we were fighting—amicably—over names. The vibe just sort of carried over into other elements of our band.” To that end, many of the themes explored in the Hainish Cycle carry over into songs like “Shiftgrethor,” defined in The Left Hand of Darkness as “prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen.” Ekumen’s song of the same name describes the way men’s stories—and by extension, their esteem—are privileged above all else. “We are not a concept band,” I says, “but the titles were definitely picked to fit the songs; the dialogue that opens up is more than happenstance, but less than conversation.”
On “Odonianism,” the album’s last and longest song, the band subverts yet another hardcore trope, turning the traditional song about unity into a drawn-out dirge in which AL hauntingly chants, “Hearts like ours won’t let love lose.” It’s a moment that a less experienced band might have played for fist-pumping triumph—a misguided effort to counterweight the frustration on display in the rest of their record. But in Ekumen’s hands, the phrase becomes a mantra against the dark—a spell for united forward motion, an action of hope performed together, not an attempt to ignore pain. J articulates the concept simply: “We can all still grow. That’s about as close to hopeful as I get.” While punk and Le Guin don’t define Ekumen, both played a part in the band’s creation. What Ekumen have become is a product of the people involved. AL sums it up, “This is the thing we do with, and for, each other.” It’s that focus that sets Ekumen apart.