Friday, 20 April 2012

Maps & Atlases - Beware And Be Grateful

I was - not so much looking forward to with uncontrolled anticipation, but instead - intrigued as to how Maps & Atlases would follow up their 2010 debut, 'Perch Patchwork'. The album's mixture of math-rock technicality alongside lead singer Dave Davison's humble warmth in singing made it an interesting listen for the year, given the album was a litter of one-word song titles and unprecedented erraticness in its structure. 'Beware And Be Grateful' in 2012 sees the band lean more into the art rock category, their previous flickers of guitar playing narrowing drastically, blending between the alternates of dominant instruments and just-as-dominat vocals alike.

To say 'Old & Gray', the first of Beware's ten tracks surfaces like some unexpected hiccup would be the ideal description. It's not that the elastic snap from an almost-accapella formulae to minimalist instrumentation of acoustic and percussion, seems totally faulty and struggling, but even as Davison's vocals gargle and regurgitate in repeating pattern, the track comes across as lacking in complete integrity. To fill an entire minute with one-string, more specifically one-note playing only emphasizes this false-start vibe. 'Fever' then is in as perfect a place to pick the album up in its energetic wobbling of synthesizers and drum playing. Even if the sound may feel to some, out-of-place and uncharacteristic, it combines well with the underlay of plucked strings later transpiring into expanses of wailing guitar riffs.

'Remote & Dark Years' is the album's - at this point - nostalgic borrowing of previous recordings, the guitars feeling more organic and inevitable to slip up...something which made the strumming on 'Perch Patchwork' work so well. The mixing treads a tightrope with its pounding drums and freedom of guitar playing, but Davison's vocals remain in control, thankfully. And while the track is one of only two lasting less than three minutes, it's impact is more interconnecting and appreciative than the more experimental withdrawn compositions of four, five, even six minutes that surround it. Such is the case with 'Silver Self' which at one point feels totally improvisational, and in others, feels totally dictated in tone and rhythm. The sounds themselves give off some intriguing textures - the chirpy bloated keyboards wrestling with the more rusted gritty guitar work makes for an interesting composite - but the track lacks any means of structure so as to maximize these sounds' effectiveness. And in the end, six minutes of time feel less like a track rich in content, and more drowning in half-formed doodles.

Without the foundations that made their debut so worthwhile, I would imagine this band may have fallen victim to the dreaded second-album syndrome. 'Be Three Years Old' feels as innocently optimistic and curious in its transgression as its title suggests. The song, much like previous tracks, doesn't attempt to aim high in search of something that's not really there. Instead, Davison lets his emotive coining and country-like hiking of tone and timbre unleash itself - such a simple execution that brings immense results against the instrumentation. Follower 'Bugs' shows the same signature of unconcerned naturism with its guitar work, more tornado-like mathematically bent strings and pacing sound waves passing through the oak-brown, leaf-green landscape. Closer 'Important' shows promise as to where the band may find both their skills and their interests in, the song's more calmer - and in places, unsettled - clatter of bopping drums and eery sound distortion leaving a long and daunting shadow over the album's catalogue of successes, improvements...but above all, mistakes.

And it's a mistake the band need not only to look back on, but realize it does not work collectively, and correct. Their debut succeeded in its mixture of vocals and instrumentation because of its ingenious fusion of math-rock rhythms and more traditional stripped-back construction. Take that away, and you're left with a sound that lacks a togetherness all albums, to some degree, need. Whether it's a human error of post-production mixing or the fact that this is an album trying too many things at one given time, 'Beware & Be Grateful' as a whole, may well be described in future years, as the band's 'hiccup' record.


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