The sounds of unconventional and unformulated rock music inspired a generation of intellectuals who cite noise rock and jazz as their influence. Math rock as it's so gawkily called due to its time signature mathematics became a hit genre in the mid-00s, after a decade of Ian Williams' Don Caballero. The beauty was that these so called math rock bands were entering a technically gifted genre. It pays to get it right, it's scrutinising when it fails. Williams continued his math rock adventures with Battles, releasing the most known, appreciated and noted math rock album that's not math rock at all, Mirrored in 2007. The experimental and almost post-rock connotation of this music has been brushed under the carpet ever since Steve Vai started shredding. Marnie Stern is massively influenced by Hella, the work of legendary drummer Zach Hill, now full time percussionist for Death Grips. And fellow noise makers Lightning Bolt. Her passion for shredding, math rock, experimenting and noise has been an important factor in her short but impressive career as a recording artist. So with Zach Hill, her usual resident drummer leaving for Death Grips, can Stern direct her fourth album out of the dying genre? She just happens to do exactly that on The Chronicles of Marnia.
Her fourth album is a step away from the math rock / noise rock sounds of her first two albums. Her third and most recent self-titled was also a variance of her early work, but not as refined or well produced as The Chronicles of Marnia. Tracks such as "Immortals" and "East Side Glory" suggest a completely different Stern, with more time for progressions and song-writing than sound. She still shreds her guitar and the percussion isn't too different with Kid Millions of the band Oneida behind the kit. The electric guitar repetition is still present, with "Nothing Is Easy" being a prime example of Stern's layered vocal over one math rock riff and a second heavy guitar. It's Stern singing in her child-like voice without coming across as whiney like she has done on previous albums.
"Year of the Glad" is far from a subtle reference to David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Stern's song-writing has drastically improved, using Wallace's novel as a pedestal for her re-branding. It's taking the old, replacing a drummer and bringing in for the first time a producer, Nicolas Vernhes: "The beginning, new finds. New finds and old dreams, and everything's starting now." The album opener sets the mood for the following 30 minutes. She's constantly evolving her music, and takes in all inspirations and advice, as heard with her second track "You Don't Turn Down". We hear a slower Stern vocal with emphasis on studio effects. The fast guitar picking is ever-present, with structural variations and layered vocals to cover the gaps. Stern gives a mammoth vocal half-way in where she sings: "I am losing all hope in my body," in her strangely soothing vocal scream.
It's the vocal shrieks that once turned me away from Stern, but the effect of having a producer in the studio has paid off for the on the fence supporters, where rhythms and sounds come before loud and annoying wails. Stern's career began as a giant jigsaw puzzle, and she's finally putting the pieces together. The third track "Noonan" shows off her ability to create a song without taking it too far in the noise department. The Chronicles of Marnia never removes Stern from the scene she grew out of; it encases her and takes her through a voyage of clean, crisp sounds, switching the distortion pedal for the reverb. It opens in a Foals-like jive before taking on the rhythm guitar we heard on Battles' 2011 album Gloss Drop. The opening guitar that's drenched in effects never leaves, making "Noonan" one of her best songs to date, it certainly fits with the general mood on The Chronicles of Marnia.
Stern searches for an all-important anthem with The Chronicles of Marnia. The title track could be her calling card for a wider audience, stark guitar stabs without the unnecessary filling of out of place layers. This track has a structure worth noting, loud energetic guitars towards the final hurdle, the loud, blunt stabs that introduces the track and the progressive middle section where Stern sings along with the instrumental pleasantly. Her instinctive vocal creations (not in the English language) are never off-putting and mix nicely with the rock atmosphere. It's what makes tracks like "Still Moving" interesting to listen to, and interoperate. A 90s American alternative rock guitar riff can be heard right after her vox introduction. It sounds like it's been lifted from the opening of a Blink-182 song.
She waits right up until the final two tracks to present her new self. The penultimate track "Proof of Life" is The Chronicles of Marnia's swan song. It's built from a deep, thumping keyboard riff delivered by Evan Jewett of her all new studio recording band. It's the saddest track on the album, with Stern degrading herself in the lyrics, she sings: "I am nothing, I am no-one." It's not a contrast to the album closer "Hell Yes", where Stern's shredding takes over and continues a run of math rock influenced music.
The Chronicles of Marnia won't go down as Stern's best album and it won't be considered her most important album 10 years down the line. It's her breakthrough album, where song-writing and production come first. Her vocals have eagerly improved, as has her ability to create well-structured tracks all pretty much smashing the recommended pop timing of three minutes. Stern is an artist who's contributing to rock music today; she's the sound of a rock female guitarist, and she lives up to her accolades with vigorous guitar work. Her fourth album certainly has its standouts, but the main standout to me is Stern's jigsaw puzzle skills - time will tell whether Stern completes her mission, peaking and eventually becoming the face of guitar-based music.