Review Summary: The UK math rock supergroup's familiar yet strange debut manages to separate them from the majority of their peers, but brings them closer to greatness and innovation.
UK math rock band A-Tota-So's debut album is a vaguely familiar yet hauntingly strange journey, featuring members of Alright the Captain and Cheap Jazz. Fans of the genre will undoubtedly rejoice at the bands highly technical instrumental prowess and knack for topsy-turvy song dynamics, but these tried-and-true tropes prove to be some of the less important ingredients to their unique and highly enjoyable sound.
The melodic mysteries and tension explored by the band often come off as heartfelt, smart, and quirky all at the same time. There is a level of playfulness to it. In a way, it reminds me of some of the genres most celebrated acts. Think of bands like Hella, Adebisi Shank, Giraffes? Giraffes! , or even Don Caballero: many of these bands' greatest moments are the ones in which they aren't taking themselves too seriously; it's just meticulously and excitedly crafted fun.
Opener "Black Market Broccoli" checks all of the above mentioned characteristics within thirty seconds: odd-metered, dextrous drum parts dancing around tempo changes, a rapidly alternating clean/dirty dichotomy between the bass and guitar, and a permeating sense of energy.
"Tea Leaf" morphs eloquently from funeral march vibes into the perfect post-rock swell in the blink of an eye, then takes the original idea and turns it into a triumphant, mathy strut. Towards the middle, you may or may not catch yourself thinking thoughts like "this is progressive Chon." And yet by the end, you will definitely be trying to figure out what dead rock star you've heard use that fuzz-saw guitar tone before.
Then there's "Double Deaf." There is no way you will hear the beginning of this and not make a Tool comparison. Unless you've never heard of Tool; either way it's a lot like Tool, but if they wanted to have more fun in half the song time.
"Clever Liver" runs similarly, balancing the heavier, more energetic riffs with quiet, nimble, and a little sad fingerpicking interludes.
Much of the album follows this trend, and to me that makes it an album perfect for attaching your favorite Fall memories to. Like watching the leaves change, there are some fairly introspective doses of melancholia to be found underneath the joy. The element of fun contained in the record is often met with a raw, exhausted gaze. "Acer," and "Long Run," both occasionally echo the mumbly, shaggy haired sounds of midwestern math rock and emo, but also the nihilistic fuzz destruction that hallmarked much of the 90's alternative scene.
The band tends to throw in the term "grunge" when describing themselves, and though normally this sends cautious shivers down my spine, I would have to say their usage of the term is at least fairly accurate. There are many moments that keep listeners on edge, waiting for dissonance to give way, and it's half the fun. It's certainly nuanced and well written, whatever people call it.
The mixing, perhaps, is part of this as well. Each instrument stands out clearly and distinctively, even when everyone in the band is playing at maximum capacity.
There is a generally present dank, claustrophobic atmosphere though, and when the clean parts open up, it is really well done and sounds fantastic. It would be interesting to see if a brighter overall mix would reveal even more detail in the playing, particularly when it comes to the bass, which otherwise is phenomenal.
With math rock becoming a quickly crowded genre where it's harder and harder to tell imitators from innovators, A-Tota-So have made a fantastic first step towards becoming the latter, and I can't wait to see what happens next for them.