YOU PROBABLY MISSED the first chapter of the Fourth Wall. Luckily, you're just in time for the second. It begins two summers ago, when three-quarters of the Hawaiian band Stephen Agustin and the Fourth Wall—singer/guitarist Agustin, guitarist Kasey Shun, and bassist Paul Brittain—decided to try their luck on the mainland.
"We'd started playing more shows and climbing the ladder of recognition in Hawaii, which is not a very tall ladder," says Agustin, sitting with his bandmates on the sunny patio at Migration Brewing. "There's a cool music scene in Oahu, and it's very small and close and friendly. And we'd get these bigger gigs; we got to play with Andrew Bird and the Shins when they came down, which was cool, but the one promotion company there has the monopoly on everything. We had reached this point where we thought, "Well, maybe we should go outside of what we know." We all really loved Portland when we visited—we thought there was no better place."
The band's drummer stayed behind, but the others gradually got settled in Portland. Agustin found a job at Trade Up Music, where he met drummer Max Lilien, veteran of local bands Southern Belle and the Sun-Birds. Enlisting Lilien and dropping Agustin's name from their moniker, the Fourth Wall finished recording their second album, the superb Lovely Violence, while slowly hewing out a place in the Portland music scene.
"We had to basically start over again," says Brittain. "I would say we had a relatively big following in Hawaii, but most music in Hawaii is slack key guitar, traditional Hawaiian music, and reggae music. There are small pockets of rock, and a big punk-rock scene, but that's sort of dwindling... and the rock scene is mostly metal bands. We didn't really have a place there."
"If you want to make a living playing music in Hawaii, you'll be playing reggae at grad parties and baby showers, or Hawaiian music at hotels," Shun adds.
A glancing listen to Lovely Violence reveals that the Fourth Wall isn't suited for those career paths. In fact, the album is something of a wonder: an engrossing, fully realized and vitalized record with no easy musical touchstone—although phrases like "indie," "atmospheric," and "melodic noise rock" perhaps apply. Over the course of our conversation, members of the group mention the Band, My Bloody Valentine, and, in particular, Paul and Linda McCartney's Ram, but Lovely Violence outwardly resembles none of these. It contains moments of ferocious power ("The Dying Lights") and shivering delicateness (the opening segment of "Let Me Rest"), as the Fourth Wall steadily and conscientiously builds each piece of music. They find room for dramatic flourishes and washes of sonic decoration, but the end result is tight and song-oriented.
"I think the album is intentionally concise," Lilien says. "We put it together and figured out the order, and we didn't want to throw in anything that was going to be superfluous."
It was a slow process, to be sure, and one the band was intent on doing themselves from start to finish. The sonic ambition of Lovely Violence is staggering, especially considering Agustin recorded it at their practice space and at home.
"My dad actually worked at a radio station, and over the years I would inherit these microphones they didn't want anymore," Agustin says. "And I slowly learned how to use the equipment. I've been recording personal stuff for a while, probably seven years or something. And I really liked the idea of doing it ourselves this time around, because the first time we did a record together was in LA, and it was a very expensive trip."
Lovely Violence's lush, widescreen beauty sounds tremendous, even without acknowledging its DIY creation. That element is carried over to its distribution, too; the album is currently a free download on Bandcamp, as well as being available on iTunes, CD Baby, Spotify, and the usual places. Saturday's show inaugurates a CD edition of the album, but whatever form it's in, Lovely Violence is one of the most impressive and rewarding albums of the year.
"It's kind of an album of love songs, and there are a couple ways to think about love," Agustin says of Lovely Violence's oxymoronic title. "In one way, love can impose a diminishing quality on everything around the thing that you love—kind of lessening the rest of the world. So that's one violent strain of love. And some songs explore love as this force or immense pressure that happens to you, and it's traumatic."
Agustin and the rest of the Fourth Wall have captured that sense of trauma, but also that sense of wonder and delight. Their songs are economical but dramatic, poised but relatable. Once you've heard the second chapter of the Fourth Wall, you'll want to stick around for the third, and the fourth, and the rest.