Sunday, February 14, 2016

album review: 'do nothing till you hear from me' by the mute gods

So I'm going to start things off on a bit of a weird tangent, but I promise it does mostly make sense in context, and here it is: am I the only one who finds the whole recommended playlist or video or album concept completely frustrating?

Maybe it's because I'm a music critic, but I'd like to think the idea spreads across all forms of media: just because I like something of one genre is no guarantee I'm going to like something in the same genre, especially if I've got no historical record of liking them in the past. Just because I like Nightwish and Within Temptation doesn't mean I want Evanescence recommendations, for example. And what's exasperating is that you know it's entirely algorithm-based, off of tags and your historical viewing habits, all driven to make you consume more content - I'd prefer to take something similar to what Amazon or iTunes does, which correlate albums that people buy with other purchases they might have made. Maybe it's just me, but I'd trust the taste of people over the taste of a computer trying to ascertain what I'd think. Now the logical extension of that is that since people default to the lowest common denominator that they'd behave in a similar way to the algorithms, but you'll find when you go into smaller niche genres like progressive rock that it isn't quite the case, as people here are a little more willing to venture off the beaten path. 

I say all of this not just because this supergroup showed up a number of times when I was looking for new progressive rock, but also because bands tend to market themselves in a similar way - 'hey, we worked with these artists you liked, so maybe you should check out our stuff!' Again, a similar sense of caution needs to be there, but I'll admit I was intrigued when I first heard about The Mute Gods. Two of the members - bassist and frontman Nick Beggs and drummer Marco Minnemann - had toured with Steven Wilson and had played on his excellent record from 2015 Hand. Cannot. Erase. So when they called up Roger King to handle lead guitars, keyboards, and production, I had reason to be enthused, but I was also cautious. I might have issues with Steven Wilson, but the man is also a musical genius as a composer and songwriter, and I wasn't sure whether the stridently political approach that The Mute Gods were looking to take with their debut was as workable as they thought. But hey, at the very least these guys can all play incredibly well, so we're bound to get some great music out of it, right?

Well, this is one of the more peculiar records I've talked about in some time, because it is simultaneously both better and worse than I expected. On the one hand, this is definitely an album that will grow on you in terms of some surprisingly well-constructed hooks and excellent moments, but they tend to be in stark contrast to the elements that frankly should be a lot better. I'm not saying it's a bad record - for a progressive rock debut, I definitely see promise here and a sound that knows its heritage but can move on a unique path - but there are real flaws that are kind of hard to overlook. In other words, good, but definitely a few steps away from great.

So let's start with the element that I'll wholeheartedly praise: composition and instrumentation. In contrast with Steven Wilson the Mute Gods go for a sound that is more jagged and more willing to take risks, with nastier tones and a greater willingness to embrace dissonance, the most notable coming the breakdown of 'Praying To A Mute God'. And the ability to write some surprisingly sticky choruses leads to the band potentially having a stronger pop sensibility, at least for as much as you'd expect one in progressive rock. But that's not to discount hooks like on the title track or 'Last Man On Earth' or the final track 'Father Daughter', or the driving central melody behind 'Feed The Troll'. Hell, when this album can build to some rattling presence it can rock pretty well like on 'Mavro Capello' or 'Your Dark Ideas', and on the flip side, it can build to some acoustic and keyboard touched spacey atmosphere on 'Nightschool for Idiots' or 'Last Man On Earth', with plenty of organ or wiry synth to add real foundation. And yet it's a shame that melodic composition is pretty much the place where any conversation of 'foundation' will stop, because from there we need to talk about production and where this record kind of skids off the rails. Let's start with the least objectionable thing: the drums. Quite frankly, Marco Minnemann is working overtime on this record with some excellently complex patterns and progression - including a great jazzy line on 'Strange Relationship' that I really dug - but I can't help but feel that the cymbals feel a tad overmixed compared to a deeper kickdrum or snare with more bite. Hell, you could say that about the majority of the midrange production, which might be able to bring out some rattling guitar presence occasionally but tends to blur more of the textures together - which when combined with an abundance of chiptune fragments, filters, and layers of strings, can lead to a bit of an overmixed mess that doesn't allow really great instrumentation or melody to shine through as well. It's not helped by the album feeling oddly misshapen at parts, with more than a few tracks cut off before the groove can really grow or evolve and other tracks that don't quite evolve the way they should, the most notable being the otherwise solid instrumental 'In The Crosshairs'.

And they're not helped by the vocals, and while I'll give Nick Beggs some points for trying, he's not remotely a convincing frontman. With backing vocals behind Steven Wilson - who has been criticized in the past for not having huge range but who can at least hold his own - I can believe it, but Beggs doesn't have nearly enough power or emotive range to carry this material. He can carry a tune, sure, but his willowy, thin delivery really comes across as inert and passive. Except when he tries to go for a more theatrical delivery on 'Your Dark Ideas' and he sounds like Weird Al, and considering this record is intended to be taken seriously, that's an issue. The vocal production is a real mess too, not helped by backing vocals that either seem to have more power and depth than Beggs or are mixed in a way that they blur over each other in a really unflattering way. But nowhere is Beggs' lack of power emphasized more than on the closer 'Father Daughter', a duet with his actual daughter where she actually shows some raw emotive presence... and whether it's because of mixing or lifeless delivery, but the song feels nowhere near as potent as it could.

Now part of this comes down to the writing, where the best way I can describe it is having some promise, but ultimately falling a little short. Most of this record feels reactionary and reflective, some at the dystopian world that everyone thinks we're now living in, and some in a more straightforward 'failed relationship' sense, with perhaps the most poignant version of this coming in 'Last Man On Earth'. And the odd and frustrating thing is how inconsistent so much of it feels - take 'Feed The Troll', which actually is pretty clever in how it targets both online trolls and those who take a sick sort of pleasure taking them down, but then you have songs like 'Nightschool For Idiots', which tries to go for poignancy in regretting a breakup, and yet the chorus just feels more gimmicky and corny than it should. I think the bigger issue is that the nuance isn't entirely consistent, because while some of the framing highlights the impossibility of standing against the passage of time and the futility of it all, it's clear we're supposed to empathize more with our protagonist, and when he doesn't really display a lot of vocal personality or subtlety, you can't help but notice that a lot of the writing doesn't rise above passable, which is never a good sign.

But at the end of the day, is this a good record? I think so, on some level, but I'm not exactly inclined to revisit it much. Yes, it's definitely a grower and has some bits of cleverness and some superb musicianship and even a few well-appreciated hooks, but at the same time, there are more moments that feel limp and kind of lifeless than they really should. For me, it's a strong 6/10 and recommended if you're into this brand of modern progressive rock, but otherwise it's an interesting curiosity, nothing more, nothing less.

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