MuteMath hits the reset button on Vitals
Time: 12 tracks / 47:47
Spoiler alert for all you odd souls out there: MuteMath has pushed the reset button. OK, we've all been on pins and needles to see what kind of progress these guys have made since being out of the spotlight for a while, and at last Vitals reveals the latest evolution of this anything-but-typical band. Enough with the hidden-titles introduction: let's talk Vitals.
The long-awaited project from MuteMath manages to sound very different and very familiar at the same time. Most fans have already heard the single - the energetic and hook-laden “Monument.” The album’s first song, “Joyrides,” is no less bright and bouncy than the aforementioned single and already sounds like a dance-mix. Exploding with speaker-ripping, thumping synth-bass, and Darren King sounding machine-precise on drums, Paul Meany's vocals ride on top of a mix of eighties-sounding keyboards and a sea of synthesized sound.
Momentarily fooled by a low-key opening, “Light Up” (reminiscent of “Goodbye,” to these ears), continues the dance party – and the hooks. The music is a hybrid of eighties sounds and modern pop, even flirting with the d-word (d*sco) yet the band still manages to pull it off with integrity and a solid groove.
The third song, “Monument,” cements the fact that this is a revitalized MuteMath – one that's worked through the angst reflected in some of the music created for past projects – a MuteMath that's poised to conquer modern radio. An unabashed pop love song, “Monument” perhaps came out a bit too late in the summer, but feels as if it should rightfully be playing as loud as your car's music system can handle as you drive through town with your windows open.
“Stratosphere” slows the pace down somewhat, even with King's busy beats doubling the tempo of Meany's reflective vocal. The spacy vibe is augmented by very electronic arpeggios (that I'll assume are sequenced) and beautifully textured, layered vocal parts. “All I See” follows – a tender mini-ballad with poetic lyrics, underpinned by a wash of electronics and a repeating keyboard line, joined (three minutes in) by a simple drum accompaniment. Meany's voice is in its high register mode, expressive and vulnerable. When he sings, “everything around is love, everything around is beautiful,” it’s a sonically beautiful moment indeed. Think a more ethereal “In No Time” - the song has the feeling of an interlude, and leads us to the album's first instrumental track.
The title track, “Vitals,” follows – introduced by a low drone sound and Roy Mitchell-Cardenas' infectious Afro-pop influenced guitar, it's an instrumental piece that's more structurally-tight than some past wordless tracks, heavy on keyboards, beats, synth bass and electronic bursts of sound.
The pace slows down again for the hypnotic vibe of “Composed,” driven primarily by an impressive vocal melody from Paul – in what I've come to call his 'choir-boy' mode – delivering some unique and surprising phrasing - in fact, some of the most inventive vocals of his career.
The regular, ponderous beat of “Used To” sets up what's essentially a blues song that would be right at home on Odd Soul - except that it's in a setting of synthesizers, electronic beats and effects. “I used to feel alive, I used to want to – I used to be alright - I used to love you” Meany sings, continuing, with bluesy phrasing, “I used to never feel like I do now, I used to never feel like I do now – I used to walk on air, I used to care I had no fear of fallin' – I used to never feel like I do now.” The vocals are expressive, with some delicious electronic trickery using a vocal lick as a cool repeating ba-ba-bap slap-down at one point. The percussive double-clap section on the bridge recalls the hook on Soft Cell's 1981 hit, “Tainted Love” - so there's that 80s vibe again. The bottom line to all of this is that MuteMath has once more created a blues song in a new hybrid form, encompassing everything from new wave to electronica to dance.
If “Monument” wasn't already the single, I'd vote for “Best of Intentions,” a bright, danceable song with a snappy vocal, several hooks, a memorable bridge with layered vocals, great production, some great implied horn parts (even though there are no horns), and clever lyrics: “I’d like to help you get those hang-ups under control – but I've got far too many, far too many of my own. I'd like to save you from those devils from in your soul – but I've got far too many, far too many of my own ...I wanna' wish you the best of intentions ...I want you to figure it out, it's time to figure it out. ...”
The second instrumental track, “Bulletproof,” follows, opened by more of that percussive, dampened string attack from Roy's guitar followed by oscillating synths, drums, and pulsing keyboards. Typical of MuteMath soundscapes, there are stops and starts within the song's framework along with some up-front electric arpeggios.
Paul is once again in a gentler vocal mode for “Safe If We Don't Look Down,” a mid-tempo song with the band in a more restrained performance. King's drumming and Mitchell-Cardenas' guitar are up front in the instrumental mix, playing in a strictly functional mode with no grand-standing, leaving Todd Gummerman and Meany to provide subtle synth bass and a bed of chords from one of the keyboards.
Continuing their tradition of finishing with intensity, “Remain” is a slow-building crescendo of a song with Meany offering a plaintive, high-register vocal over a pulsing beat and a bed of airy synth and guitar. An inspiring and intense ending features Paul singing a mantra of motivational prods:
“just keep trying – just keep fighting – just keep going – just keep surviving -
just keep walking - just keep breathing - just keep holding - just keep believing...”
The layered vocals rise while drums, synths and guitar build to an emotional climax. The song is affirming and positive, almost the polar opposite of “Clipping,” from Armistice, where we hear, in an almost painfully intense delivery, these words: “...Anymore, I don't know who to fight anymore - I don't know what is right anymore, anymore - Anymore, I don't know how to feel anymore - I don't know what is real anymore, anymore...” It's like Lennon's “I don't believe” list from his song, “God,” compared to his later “Number 9 Dream,” where he sings, “I believe, yes I believe - More I cannot say. What more can I say?” Where Lennon goes from unbelief to belief, MuteMath's dark night of the soul seems to have given way to a season of hope, determination and, yes – dance beats.
So what is MuteMath up to here? For one thing, they've had some time to evolve. The young, largely unknown indie band that self-produced and distributed their first EP on a street-level basis have achieved some measure of success and recognition around the world. They've been signed by a major label and have since left that label. They've had their faith shaken in more ways than one, have explored various music styles and now are coming full-circle, incorporating all that went before with an album that, at first listen, is jarringly different from what they've done in the past but on further inspection is actually more of a return to their roots.
In truth, Vitals features a 'new' MuteMath that seems to be showing two sides of what they've always been about, only amped up: the MuteMath that wants to write pop songs about relationships and the MuteMath that wants to stop, look inside, and reflect. On this project the two sides of the band have become more obvious. The more surprising developments - incorporating dubstep, eighties-style synth sounds, the Afro-pop guitar work from Roy, the less-manic, more precise, machine-like playing from Darren King - seem less familiar to fans than the music we last heard on the more visceral, blues-based Odd Soul project (for Pete’s sake, there was a Hammond B3 on that album!!). But there's another side of the band's sound on Vitals that is more familiar – an almost hypnotic, synth-heavy sound that goes back to “OK” and “In No Time.”
Even though this is once again an album that gets its one-word title from an instrumental track (‘sound familiar?),there are some elements that MuteMath regulars will find missing in action: Roy's Odd Soul style searing guitar lines have been replaced (for the most part) by the rhythmic dampened string technique that's, at first, hard to identify as a guitar at all until your ear discovers the pizzicato-like voice; the more manic side of Darren's drumming gives way to a more precise, almost drum-machine style of playing - often in tandem with electronic beats - only to materialize slightly on “Remain” and in a few other places; for the most part, there's no bass guitar (although Roy did play some) in favor of a synth-bass played by Roy, Paul, or Darren.
The production is clean and less compressed sounding than other MuteMath projects. One big advance made on Vitals is both the intimate sound and creative use of Paul's vocals, which finally are clean and very up-front in the mix, with a minimum of effects and filters. His phrasing is passionate and effective with flashes of absolute brilliance, and there are nice instances of vocal samples and harmony. There's also some very poetic imagery in some of the lyrics, especially “All I See” - “I have looked out on the wonders that the world can offer - I have watched the perfect love that found its ever-after / I have sailed across a lake of glass paved with diamonds - Ever, I find something beautiful – your face ...is all I see...” New member Todd Gummerman, in addition to being a multi-instrumentalist, seems to be a vocal chameleon ably matching Meany's vocal inflections and tones onstage and apparently in-studio.
The evolution of MuteMath continues. For those who have followed the musical journey, there will be parts that you’ll want to visit more often than others – actual mileage may vary. But on Vitals MuteMath has, indeed, hit the reset button – only the defaults have changed up a bit. On Vitals there's a return to their electronic roots, a revisiting of the sounds of the eighties and an embracing of the current pop scene. To use a Star Trek metaphor, they're like a musical Borg invasion, absorbing electronica, alternative, funk, blues, dance, and pop. Resistance is futile.