Review Summary: Progressing progressive rock yet again.
The first time I heard RX Bandits was at the first day of my second job. The person I was working with started up typical first meeting conversation: "How old are you?", "Where do you live" and most importantly, "What kind of music do you like?". I replied with my favorite bands at the time, which led him to ask if I had ever heard of RX Bandits. He explained to me that the Bandits play a mix of ska, reggae, rock, and just straight up jams. From the description alone I was hooked. He gave me "The Resignation" but was turned off by the predominately ska driven songs. Then came "...And the Battle Begun"; less ska, more rock! "...And The Battle Begun" was truly progressive rock. When I heard RX was coming out with a new album in 2009 I was excited just thinking about how they could progress rock music even further. Which brings us to "Mandala".
The first instrument you are greeted with when you start "Mandala" is the keyboard. The keyboard gets a lot of attention on this record, which could be due to the loss of the bands trombonist. The first song, "My Lonesome Only Friend", starts the album on a high note, with an upbeat but simple rock song with a killer guitar solo and a chorus that will get stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Coming off the high of the opener the next three songs are unique in their own way, but none of them really stand out. That doesn't mean they are bad songs, but you won't be finding yourself coming back to play them as much as the other songs on the record. One song worth mentioning out of the three is "Hope is a Butterfly...". A strange sounding guitar and bass riff starts out the song, but quickly the song changes pace less than a minute in. No less than 3 times the song turns around and changes on you; a different time signature, new vocal style, anything is game in this song; and the album itself for that matter.
Mid-way through the album a track that sounds like it doesn't belong comes up. Spanish lyrics start this epic named "Mientras La Veo Sonar". The lyrics switch from English to Spanish multiple times throughout the song while the drums and guitar lay down a Spanish-inspired groove complete with maracas. Halfway through the song the vocals come to a halt and the keyboards come back to bring a three minute solo that is mindblowing. The drums and as spastic as ever, maracas still present, while keyboardist/guitarist Steve Choi showcases some amazing key work. The track finally fades out into a slow guitar riff that opens "March of the Caterpillar". The song starts out slow and never gets too loud, but is still a rocking track. Matt Embree opens up the next song singing, "White lies/I ain't going to sing the same old songs again/I ain't going to wage the same old wars". Matt can rest assured that he has not sung the same old songs. "White Lies" is soft and slow and filled with emotion. The keys and drums are most present while Embree wails over them. Building up to the end of the song, a string section is brought in, adding to the overall mood of the song.
Now I don't know what a "Breakfast Cat" is, but this song is as crazy as its name. What sounds like a metal riff starts out this song quickly turning back into a typical RX song. The guitar seems to be the focus of this song, it is loud and in your face the entire time. The song comes crashing down in the middle where the guitars drone along and the band experiments with some vocal manipulation. At the end of the track you can hear Matt give an approving laugh which I can only guess is him telling you to be prepared for the next track; and rightfully so, it might be the best track on this great album. A jumbled mess of instruments starts out "Bled to be Free (The Operation)" which then unfolds to a fast guitar riff and booming drum beat. The song switches from a fast verse to a slow chorus and back again before stopping completely for about a second before the second half of the song starts up. Wailing out, "Operation! Ooooh Operation!" The Bandits jam out the second half of this song. An insane guitar solo sweeps through then fades away back to Embree signing "Ooooh Operation! Never went out/Never get out!", a chorus that you will be singing in your head for days. The closer "Bring Our Children Home or Everything is Nothing" is more of an encore to the last song. The first part of the song is fun but forgettable. You realize why this song is the closer near the end of the song where every instrument comes together for one final crescendo to end the album on.
Like the past three albums, Mandala was recorded entirely live. Producer Chris Furdurich does an excellent job capturing The Bandits sound. All of the instruments are where they are supposed to be in the mix, and the production is nothing short of perfect, even for the album being recorded live. The live recording adds a new dimension to the songs. For example: you will never hear Steve's guitar playing while the keyboards are. This is something simple modern layering could accomplish, but with Mandala what they play is what you hear.
RX Bandits have really pushed themselves and rock music in a direction that is new and fresh. By losing their brass section, RX has compensated by bringing in more keys, which works so well for them. The only thing that brings down the album is a few forgettable songs, but that shouldn't turn any one off from giving this record a try or even a buy. If you liked "...And The Battle Begun" then you will definitely enjoy "Mandala". If you have never heard a RX Bandits album (seriously, get this) then this would be a great place to start. You won't get the ska elements of the older records, but you will get everything the Bandits are about, sick jams and progressive rock music. If you are a fan of any type of rock music (or just music in general), RX Bandits should not be overlooked.