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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Label: Teleprompt / Warner Bros.
Time: 12 tracks / 48:58
MuteMath has escaped the sophomore curse. Yes, Armistice is their second full-length release, and it hasn’t come without a fight. Were there casualties? Yes: their original set of new songs. The story – now well-known by MuteMath’s legion of on-line fans – is that the band had come to a creative and personal stalemate trying to record the follow-up to 2006’s self-titled debut project and ended up calling in producer Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Elvis Costello, The Hives) as an outside ear. The result was the dumping of the sixteen or so tracks they were struggling with and the beginning of a new start in the studio, unshackled by pre-conceived ideas, and with a conscious bent toward a musical democracy. The result is glorious.
The word, Armistice, is defined as ‘a temporary cessation of fighting by mutual consent; a truce.’ Thematically, the album’s lyrics - consciously or not - deal with conflict and resolution, disappointment and hope, self-sacrifice and love. “You don’t have to say it – I know. It’s all my fault,” sings Paul Meany in the album’s title-track, continuing with, “the give-and-take is taking its toll,” and finally concluding with, “I’ll take the fall if it takes us somewhere.”
So where has it taken them? MuteMath has turned a musical corner with Armistice that would take a group several albums to get to, normally. On Armistice, layers of the band’s untapped potential are fully realized, as if the ‘infant’ MuteMath of the self-titled debut has magically skipped puberty and emerged on this second album as a worldly-wise young adult. The songwriting, arranging, performing, and studio skills on Armistice show a band taking huge strides where you might have expected baby steps.
The most noticeable change in MuteMath’s sound on Armistice is a degree of soul, funk, and – forgive me – heart in these songs – something that was in shorter supply on the 2006 outing. Certainly, the band’s debut was full of passion, but it was a less-nuanced passion that was so involved with the intensity of the performance that the energy itself became the star. On Armistice, the energy is still there, the edge is intact, but there’s a funky earthiness and a soulful emotion that shines through on almost every track.
“Clipping,” best exemplifies the emotional and musical maturity of this project with its haunting melody, effective chord progressions, thoughtful arrangement (including the tasteful string work of Jeremy Larsen), and painfully poignant lyrics. Meany sings, “I don’t know who to fight anymore / I don’t know what is right anymore,” in an emotional harmony, as he goes down a list of things he simply doesn’t know or trust anymore. The song is a cry from the heart in the middle of a musical free-fall – a stunningly emotional high-point.
On the funky side of things, the title track is designed to make your body move as Roy Mitchell-Cardenas gets behind an incredibly hot bass line, making the whole song pop, while Greg Hill’s guitar does its nasty thing, Darren’s drums find a James Brown groove, Paul channels a bit of Stevie Wonder and a hot horn chart brings New Orleans right into your headphones.
Armistice is a well-rounded work that starts off with the aggressive rock of “The Nerve,” leading in to the self-critical up-and-down melody of the hooky “Backfire,” with its infectious rhythm, signature drums, distortion, and electronics. There are hooks, there’s the ‘romantic’ hormonal aggression of “Electrify,” the tenderness of “Lost Year,” the classic pop of “Goodbye,” the jazz elements of “Pins and Needles,” and the audacity and epic scale of the closing track, “Burden.” MuteMath has given us a full and diverse smorgasbord of sound.
Each band member has plenty do on Armistice, and they do it well. Greg Hill underscores the songs with skillful guitar work, whether firing off licks, playing slide, rock chords, or creating sound textures that hardly sound like a guitar at all. Roy’s bass playing has never sounded funkier, more sinister, inventive, or jazzier than on this project – never overtaking a song but always supporting it with a fine sense of groove… Darren King, percussionist / drummer / musician extraordinaire, once again amazes with his uncanny skills as he jousts with time itself using a couple of sticks. King creates patterns and rhythmic textures that are complex but make perfect sense at the same time. Paul Meany, keyboardist and singer, really shines on Armistice, as his playing and vocals take on a new level of flexibility and emotional range. Vocally, Meany goes from a Dylanesque sneer on the opening track to a soulful falsetto on the album’s closer, displaying range, color, and impeccable phrasing on every song in-between.
Armistice has everything a MuteMath fan could want to hear. Even the absence of an instrumental is softened by the nine-minute “Burden,” which is sort-of like “Reset” meets “Stall Out,” and includes long instrumental passages, including some signature Darren King drum work. The uninitiated will find the album more listener-friendly than the previous album. “Goodbye,” is as good a pop song as I’ve heard in years, with wonderful lyrics: “’cause the world won’t turn, if the sun won’t rise / and the stars won’t burn, in the broken sky ….and my heart won’t work if you say goodbye.” And “Pins and Needles” should convince even the most skeptical that MuteMath has what it takes to play some jazz and maybe even come up with a standard: “Sometimes I get tired of pins and needles / facades are a fire on the skin / I’m growing fond of broken people, as I see that I am one of them…”
Yes, MuteMath has come of age. Armistice is here. The fighting’s over.
We’ve all won.