Review Summary: The RX Bandits paint a masterpiece as a four-piece band with their sixth studio album, Mandala. Every member shines on it and showcases the band in a new, progressive, heavier light.
What I love about RX Bandits is they treat music for what it really is: art. If the Bandits’ albums were portraits, the songs are body parts. Each body part is carefully painted and the band recognizes that each one is as important as the next to the overall painting. On their latest release Mandala, the RX Bandits paint, maybe not the Mona Lisa, but something very close to it.
Since the band’s evolution on 2003’s The Resignation, they have created three superb albums, all of which slowly abandoned their third wave ska sound they emerged onto the scene with in the ‘90’s. On …And the Battle Begun, the horns were pretty scarce but nonetheless a piece of the band. Now, on Mandala they are no longer (for the most part). On this album the band is a four-piece and more progressive than ever. Each member displays their excellent musicianship in a full-frontal fashion, letting the listener know that no riff is too complex, and no time signature, tempo change or genre change is beyond their reach. However, at times the band shines the brightest when they let the instruments take a backseat to the melodies and lyrics Matt Embree has the ability to write.
For example, the opener “My Lonesome Only Friend” starts off with one of the most pivotal aspects of the album; keyboards. It slowly builds up with some small guitar riffage and Matt singing quietly before it explodes into arguably the catchiest chorus they have written in a long time. A little more than half-way through the song Steve and Matt trade off guitar solo bits, before they slide into a dually-played, slinky riff, and back into the chorus. This is one of the highlight songs on Mandala and partially so because the band never reaches too far to make it one.
Following the terrific album opener is “…It’s Only Another Parsec”. Again the song starts out with a pretty funky keyboard riff that would fit right in with a Dream Theater album. The band joins in with Matt striking over the keyboards with some ska chords, and the band once again explodes into a rocking riff. A strong melody is present again and the band jams some more half-way through with both guitarists playing off each other. They also experiment with some voice modulation very briefly, but it makes the track all the better.
"Hope Is a Butterfly, No Net Its Captor" and "Hearts That Hanker For Mistake" are both very progressive tracks. "Hope Is a Butterfly..." shows the band's ability to abruptly change genres. "Hearts That Hanker For Mistake" is heavier, darker and has some very cool guitar riffs that would not be out of place on a Dream Theater record. These two songs show that this band is no longer a ska outfit.
Halfway through the CD, now on the fifth track “Minetra la Veo Sonar”, the band decides to take a lighter, more poppy approach in terms of melody. They don’t do themselves any favors in trying to distance themselves from The Mars Volta as Matt sings half the song in Spanish, half in English. Also, about midway they go exploring on a free-style jam with every member exploring their instrument as if they had never played it before. Steve Choi’s keyboard playing shines on this track.
As always with the RX Bandits, they treat their album as a whole, and as a piece of art, and decide to briefly change the mood. They give the listener a break from the hard-rocking and slow it down even further with “March of the Caterpillar”, a reggae-esque song, and it’s older, more superior brother, “White Lies”. Steve Choi sets the mood with his slow, somber keyboard playing, and Matt softly sings, “White lies, I don’t wanna sing the same old songs again, I ain’t gonna wage the same old wars. Don’t wanna break the same old promises, don’t wanna see the same old sores.” Matt then strengthens his voice and Joe Troy pitches in nicely with some backing vocals, and together they do a splendid job singing a beautiful chorus. Matt’s voice shines on this song and the band does a nice job of not going too far with the song and instead focusing on a great melody.
“Bury It Down Low” is kind of the low point on Mandala, I believe. It’s the closest thing to a ska song on the record and while interesting to listen to instrumentally, doesn't offer much. “Breakfast Cat” is like the cousin of “Hearts That Hanker For Mistake”. It’s one of the heavier songs on the whole CD, and features some pretty dazzling guitar playing and heavier riffs, much like its predecessor.
I consider the last two songs on the album, their own kind of section because they both have war related titles and are both epic journeys of their own. Also, Chris Tsagakis lays out some wild drum beats like playing drums is going out of style. Even as a drummer, I myself cannot fathom writing or playing some of what he does on “Bled To Be Free (The Operation)” or “Bring Our Children Home, Or Everything is Nothing”. “Bled To Be Free” showcases the band shredding like no other song. A completely spazzy first half of the song leads to a very rock-n-roll chord progression and face-melting guitar solo, one like we’ve never heard on an RX record. “Bring Our Children Home…” is a typical epic, closing song on an RX Bandits album. It starts off with a funky, Latin type of guitar riff before each guitarist goes off on their own picking through chords, while Matt sings a haunting melody and C-Gak does his thing. Suddenly the song blasts into a lightning fast chorus. The time signatures, and drum beats are whacky, but they come together to form an intense sound only the Bandits are capable of capturing. The song then stumbles into a powerful bridge and when that concludes, Matt and Steve both play a guitar riff while Matt sort of wails to the tune of it. With the blink of an eye, the band kicks into another one of their free-style jams with every member running wildly about their instruments. One could consider this sort of jam as mindless wankery, but it’s part of the Bandits’ art. They let your mind explore and it creates an atmosphere. Then just to show how truly tight they are as musicians and without notice bring it back together for a final crescendo, and the album is over.
Mandala is the first RX Bandits record I can consider a masterpiece. Their previous two efforts were close, but the songs on this CD are so cohesive, that I cannot help but call it one. Every member does their job and then some, and that’s what puts this album on a higher level. Mr. Embree writes some terrific melodies, Steve Choi puts forth his best effort ever with his splendid keyboard playing, and as usual great guitar playing. Joe Troy keeps the band steady and also pitches in nice backing vocals and Chris as usual is a monster on the drums and is a big factor in the RX Bandits' unique sound.
Mandala gives RX fans reason to be excited for their next album as the band continues to grow. But, for the time being and most likely for many years to come, this album will shine as one of the best in 2009.