Throughout August, Crate-Digging will be focusing on recordings that have been given a cassette release.
(Radical Mathematics / Plus Tapes, 2010)
Black Math mine all the good parts of the 1980s for their sound – the dank, scrapy metallic flourishes of clanky drum machines, the cold mist emanting from synthesizers, the vocalists hidden behind the murky curtain of the mix – sounds like a good time, right? Yeah, sure is. As in a Halloween/“Monster Mash” kind of way. This quick tape – eleven tunes, most of which last between 1:30 and 3:00 – should tug at your post punk heartstrings, as the band’s influences, draped lovingly throughout the band’s website in the forms of reviews and promo copy, leave little to the imagination: Joy Division, OMD, Tubeway Army, early Depeche Mode, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Siouxsie and the Banshees, etc. Descriptors like “cold/dark wave” are thrown around too, but really, that’s all a smokescreen. Black Math is obviously having a lot more fun behind that pseudo-goth front, and it would be a mistake to lump them in with that crowd.
Dark mathematics, wicked machinations – doesn’t Carey Mercer sing about these things? His Frog Eyes, Blackout Beach, and Swan Lake projects certainly fill their nightmarish ruminations with the motivations and underpinnings of the evil and depraved. (Probably something about a diabolical map.) Nothing quite so serious on display here, though, even though a song called “Black Math” would have worked perfectly on The Folded Palm. Anyway, digression aside. Actually, the playful lo-fidelity synth musings, however minor key’d, would make great neighbors with something like Videohippos’ Unbeast the Leash, or even the higher-fi (but not by too much) two-step stomps of A-Frames. So I’d say that the “Black” vibe is a put-on – it’s fun, it’s rock-n-roll, but ultimately it doesn’t mean anything.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy this album, just because we’ve got some goofy stylistic stickiness to wade through. You can. Enjoy it, that is. First, its brevity works for it – “Eyes Water” and “Reading Mysteries” open the album and flit by so quickly you’ll miss them if you’re not paying attention. And you should pay attention – the former is straight from the A-Frames playbook, a clang-punk tune that showcases the male half of the vocalists (Andrew or Jimmy, I don’t know which). It’s perfect Halloween-party fodder, as is the Xina-led “Reading Mysteries,” which rumbles under her distorted monotone reading of whatever buried mumbo jumbo she’s singing. She’s probably chanting incantations at you. “Dark” bands will do that.
The instrumental “Triumph Burns” gets a thicker treatment in the synth department and backs off the rhythm slightly before giving way to half-time dirge “Carry That Weight,” which, despite its heaviness, still manages a sense of whimsy. (And it makes me think of The Beatles, but only because of the title.) And it doesn’t vary too much from there to the end – mostly driving synth-pop tunes popluate the rest of Black Math, whether instrumental (and titled as such as well) or featuring hazed-out vocals. And although there are some Prince-ified titles here (“Did He Get 2 U First,” “The Mirror Has 2 Eyes,” er, “Instrumental 2”), the Purple One’s influence is nowhere to be found. (I’m not a Prince fan, so that’s a good thing in my book.)
So as indebted to 1980s synth-pop acts as Black Math is, the music itself is a lot junkier, a lot less clean than the band’s forebears. And that’s a good thing – why not stretch the limits of your recordability? It’s not like these guys are striving for the sleek blackness of true goths – I mean, look at that blown-out photo. It’s just a couple of college kids, right? They’re not vamping at industrial clubs, despite their geographical proximity to Wax Trax – they’re probably kegging it on your ex-roommate’s porch or something. Much more laid-back than the persona would suggest. And that’s a good thing.
By the way, this is up for free download at WFMU’s Free Music Archive.
RIYL: Videohippos, A-Frames, Joy Division