Review Summary: Midwest indie gets technical thanks to two-handed tapping.
A brief commentary on indie music:
Originally Posted by Count Nigel van Offenstram III, monocle enthusiast, Wagner scholar, and recent discoverer of pitchforkmedia.com
It's "totally far out." Out and about. Popular. That new sound. The "jive." The "jam." I hear a lot of talk about this Arcade Fire. Sometimes I hear about bands like Feist or Animal Collective. Sometimes I don't know how to feel about this seeming fad in modern music. Typically I like to cocoon in my den and listen to long player vinyls and the occasional wax phonograph of Romantic opera, and that other new genre the young whippersnappers have been listening to these days called "jazz." It excites me. However, moving back to the indie music, I was very curious about what the truncated word "indie" (originally "independent") could mean and why so many kids these days like what it has to offer. I myself only hear it to be simply pop music with odd textural and instrumental convolutions (could you believe some pop artists would use a banjo and electronics in their songs at the same time?! How serendipitous!), but when I searched for information about it on the World Wide Web, I found sources that claimed it was much more than bastardized popular music. I stumbled upon a web site called Pitchfork Media (http://www.pitchforkmedia.com) that lauded the efforts of countless indie artists with snappy names and ironic album titles. I even admit to noticing the sight of advertisements for "indie" clothing companies that feature girls with lopsided haircuts wearing one-piece bathing garments as some type of surrogate outerwear. Peculiar indeed.
But for real, if an indie band wants to leap beyond the typical variations of texture and instrumentation choices, what is the next frontier? I suppose song structure can be varied, but usually that just forces indie bands to tend to stretch out their ideas into motifs that will inexorably yield post-rock. Then there's tempo, I guess. Indie songs, when sped up tend to only generate dance punk type songs. The most interesting example of this is The Blood Brothers and I don't see many other indie bands experimenting with pacing that much. Then there's technicality, a characteristic of music usually reserved for prog-heads looking for an asymmetric time-signature or metalheads who are fiending for wanking shredfests, two groups who seem to be the antithesis of the indie kid. The indie kid doesn't want to sacrifice his quirkiness and idiosyncrasies for the sake of shredding.
Here comes the solution to that conundrum: Maps and Atlases. An indie group at its core, Maps and Atlases write pop music with wonderful convolutions to texture. The goofy vocals and the folk-like drum tones constrained by a pop music paradigm is a dream come true. However, there is also some crazy musicianship at work here, without taking away from the indie aspects of the music. Imagine the songwriting of a Midwest-Emo-influenced band like Don Cabellero or Denver in Dallas crossed with the indie of My Morning Jacket. But that's just the surface. There's the crazed rhythms and tapping guitar of Tera Melos and Hella, and riffs sweeter and smoother than ones heard from Minus the Bear. In fact, if I had to choose one artist to liken Maps and Atlases to, it would be Minus the Bear, except with their instruments sped up to Mach 3.
The technicality on their album Tree, Swallows, Houses
is impressive to say the least. The guitar playing is slightly less important considering that the allure of the tapping and hammering has been dulled by the popularity of The Fall of Troy, but the guitar isn't all left-hand work as most of the crazy sounds are creating by double-handed tapping or good old-fashoined alternating picking, and the other instruments don't slack either. As mentioned earlier, the guitar sounds exactly like Minus the Bear's smooth tapping and sliding but with a lot of speed. The result is incredibly rapid, clean-tone guitar doing most of the contrapuntal work that makes their sound so cluttered and intense. The bass too seems to be constantly undulating underneath, but the pace is not as severe as the bass rarely hammers on unless doubling the guitar, and usually provides legato lines underneath the guitar. Sometimes the bass even outshines the guitar by having complementary distorted chugging to contrast the constant clean tones of the guitar. The drumming also stuns. The playing here typically maintains the rigorous pace, but the genres the drummer taps into while maintaining that speed is pretty diverse. There seems to be that Tera Melos or Hella insanity in a lot of the more post-hardcore sounding beats but that may spill into a dance-punk section with a tambourine, and then a chill Album Leaf kind of pointillism.
Despite all of its technical appeal though, Tree, Swallows, Houses
is a great album because of its fun, bright-sounding major key stylings. These songs are pretty, whimsical, and nostalgic like all good indie songs should be. In an interview with Guitar Player magazine Maps and Atlases guitarist Erin Elders claims "[o]ur songs are structured traditionally, and they can be played with basic chords, but we've replaced conventional rhythm strumming with more abstract tapped parts." So, despite the crazy web of technicality wrapping up the harmonies and melodies of these songs, there is a fairly simple and beautiful core to it all. This fact is exhibited well on tracks that strip away busy fretwork for simpler, more surfacy songs. For example, "The Ongoing Horrible" is a pretty 2:05 track that has repeating guitar and sounds more like it belongs to Sufjan Stevens than it does Tera Melos. Even on tracks with insane instrumental work, these nice, almost mundane songs plod along underneath it all.
One factor that bridges the two worlds of the technical and the indie are the vocals. No matter how hard the guitar may try to take center stage, it is upstaged by the incredibly weird vocals on Tree, Swallows, Houses
. The high-pitched, reverby vocals can only be likened to the indie version of Claudio's from Coheed and Cambria, and even that doesn't quite put a finger on its oddness. So, while there is a constant battle between the complexity of the instruments and simplicity of the song structure and harmonies, the vocals nimbly tread between the two. Its idiosyncratic style and peculiar leaps make it both a technical feat and an indie quirk. Unfortunately this oddness of the vocals has also led to some fans coming to the conclusion that "[they] would love the band if it weren't for the vocals." Acquired taste or not they somehow fit into the strange mix that is Maps and Atlases. If you can't appreciate the part of the first verse where he sings "Clipping your nails like a metrono-o-o-ome" then maybe this band will never be for you, but I think the combination is pretty wonderful.
Admittedly, this weird alloy of styles can be simultaneously appealing and disgusting. I am a huge fan of the mix as I love bands like Braid and Denver in Dallas, the sort of Midwest indie types, but I also really like technicality, so it all works for me. At moments the blend is incongruous like the beginning of "Stories About Ourselves," which features a near pop punk bassline and then oddball guitars in an unfortunate contrapuntal exchange. In general, the mix is surprisingly successful though. Perhaps this indie music may be appealing beyond its obvious landmarks after all.