Review Summary: The case against math is made ever more compelling.
Technicality is a fickle friend. For every band who has flourishing solos filled with sweeps and tapping, you have at least 20 videos on YouTube of some teenager (who probably hasn't had enough sex) playing it perfectly. Bands like Dream Theater and Rush were unparalleled in their time, but now, scores of bands are pulling off things that were never even dreamed of thirty years ago. One of those bands is Maps and Atlases. Or so it seemed, anyway. Initially pegged as a math rock band, they have always had a sense of melody and poppiness bubbling beneath the flurry of tapped riffs and fluctuating time signatures. Now, with "Perch Patchwork", they have fully embraced this side, along with a few other things.
As the album opens with "Will", we are instantly treated to Dave Davison's distinctive wail along with an acoustic guitar and some distorted percussion. The song unfolds slowly, allowing the vocals and guitar to mimic each other in a meandering manner that is unique and endearing. Once that song blends into "The Charm", with its almost complete lack of melody save for Davison's voice, the listener is hooked. Something about the atmosphere that is created is just engrossing, drawing the listener into the uttering of "I don't think there is a sound that I hate more/Than the sound of your voice/When you say that you don't love me anymore". In the hands of different artists, the line would seem incredibly cliche, but here, it just works.
After the shock of just how different this album is, you start to appreciate the textures and layers of the songs, especially in tracks like "Banished Be Cavalier" and "Is", which is the best interlude I have heard in a while. Even though the band may fall back into what seems like standard fare, ("Pigeon", "Living Decorations") they will infuse it with some references to folk, classical and even African music! The aforementioned "Pigeon" is a great example of this. Just when it seems that it would be a fairly staid song (for their standards) they come along and drop in a guitar straight out of a highlife jam and a drum line that Tony Allen himself would be proud of.
As impressive as the instrumentation is (just take one listen to "Israeli Caves" and stop yourself from tapping/humming the melody for weeks), the focal point of this album is clearly Davison's voice. It takes on so many different identities; shifting timbres and tone, almost as if it were an instrument itself. It is an acquired taste, sure, but in this writer's opinion, it is simply stunning. The moment where he really shines is on "Solid Ground". The way he restrains himself as needed yet flourishes when the mood strikes him (around 0:44) lends the song an evocative and mournful feel that will certainly be the soundtrack to many missed opportunities and lost loves. However, once the title track and closer ends, there is a feeling of hopefulness and whimsicality that masks those sad undertones.
Maps and Atlases have done a fantastic job here of redefining their position in the music world with "Perch Patchwork". Just when we all thought that they would be stuck doing virtuosic but also slightly cold math rock, they seemed to wander into the forest of the unknown and pluck out a delightful mix of pop, folk, African music and yes, math that could potentially even produce a hit in "Israeli Caves". This album just goes to show that instrumental dexterity (while being a help) does not make a great album; great songs, and a little bit of imagination however, do.