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In 2012 The Last Bison seemingly rose from the marshes of southeastern Virginia to captivate the national music scene with a rare blend of music that NPR dubbed, “Classical influenced southern folk rock.” Commenting on the band’s self-released debut album, Quill, a blogger for the popular music sharing site NoiseTrade remarked: “(The Last) Bison has already crafted a sound that is threaded with their own singular strands of creativity. Songs unfurl in textured, poetic waves that are based far more in inspiration than imitation.” WXPN of Philadelphia noted The Last Bison “has subsequently swept the musical scene with its complex arrangements, refined lyrics and vocal harmonies.”
Having drawn comparisons in the past to indie superstars the likes of Mumford & Sons, The Decemberists, and Fleet Foxes, their VA project harvested a more dynamic, and anthemic sound from the soil of their folk roots. The addition of electric bass and keyboards to their extensive collection of acoustic instruments gave them a more dynamic, driving sound. After a performance at Norfolk, Virginia’s Harborfest, the The Daily Press commented on the new musical direction saying, “The result is a more rocking sound, though the band still remains true to its folkie roots.”
Following their first independent release, Quill, in 2011, The Last Bison was signed to Universal Republic Records and created the Inheritance album in 2013. The 2014 VA album found The Last Bison returning to their independent roots, having self-produced the project in collaboration with Media House Music.
To capture the sounds on The Last Bison’s 2014 VA (pronounced Virginia,) the band spent many days and nights in an old A-frame cabin. The cabin, called “the Wigwam” sits on a summer camp on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp near the band’s home in Chesapeake, Virginia. The pine-lined walls and high-lofted beams became home to a temporary studio where front man Ben Hardesty says, “We had freedom to explore and create without the time constraints we lived under on previous projects.” Out of this rustic cabin emerged a collection of music with booming organic drums and energy beyond anything on their previous work.
Ben Hardesty, who is the primary songwriter and vocalist, recorded the drum tracks on VA. Andrew Benfante, who has played a 1930s reed organ on previous works, added piano to the layers, and Amos Housworth expanded from cello to offering all the bass tracks on the project. Dan Hardesty alternated from banjo to mandolin to guitar, while he and Annah Housworth, who playsed bells, provided the lush backing vocals. Teresa Totheroh’s violin remained the thread that sowed the myriad parts together.
The 11 songs on VA revealed a band relishing in the struggle for and the discovering of freedom. When Hardesty sang, Take me with you, I can’t stay here, from “She Always Waves At The Gate,” and, Into the den of the shadows I’ve come / Far beyond what is shallow I’ve swum, from the dark and atmospheric “Sleep,” he revealed the emotional tension of desperately desiring something beyond, while treading in new territory both thrilling and threatening. In the mysterious piano driven song “By No Means, “ Hardesty proclaimed, I’m lost in caves that have no end / Astray in caverns that begin / Yet when explored, disorient / And I have waited patiently / To see such grace and mastery / Personified to this extent, declaring he has found something that satisfies his longing, and finds rest as he rejoices with the words, “All who are weary, come lay your burdens down” in the song “Burdens”.
With their most recent work SÜDA, Last Bison have stampeded down from the mountaintop and landed in the wild lands, where they inhabit world rhythms, ambient oases and crystalline stone-cathedrals with music that echoes out into the night. After 2014 sessions polishing their more pastoral arrangements into larger visions for the LP VA and EP Dorado, Last Bison have gone through a lineup change and pushed even further into a grander sonic landscape that they’ve felt their arrangements always deserved. SÜDA was tracked at COLLECTOR studios in Norfolk, VA in the summer of 2016 with new faces on board and a new goal in mind: to expand their songs into creations that more closely matched the sounds that they hear in their own heads every day.
SÜDA is a continuance of the spirit that birthed Inheritance and VA and moves the music into technicolor. The focus of writing revolved around the concept of the time singer Ben Hardesty spent as a child in the rainforests of Bolivia with his missionary parents. The songs focus on themes of longing, times remembered, and the desire for spiritual and tonal catharsis. The sound is not so much a departure from the previous vision of stark and lush chamber folk, but a broader stroke from the same intimate brush that originally drew fans to the music and members. Now, Last Bison are ready to express the passion they’ve poured into their project since inception in more fully formed maturity and share their hearts anew, for the first time, once again.
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