by Dylan Pennell (@dylan_pennell)
Math rock, huh? The designation alone feels a touch pejorative in 2017. After all, when was the last time a band of any repute threw the term out on the table to describe their latest effort? To concede to the epithet might be taken as crass haughtiness. I mean, when was the last time you saw someone regale the virtues of the genre without a knowing blush or a sense of shame? Well, I suppose the same could be said for most micro-genres popularized in the last fifteen years. That seems to be the nature of micro-genre. Someone develops an honest and (finally) accurate means of describing a style of music and then the nomenclature gets abused overused and eventually dragged through the mud by every asshole with a [insert genre-defining instrument or technique].
This brand of technically proficient songwriting (and let’s face it, flexing) developed early with seminal works by bands like Slint and American Football, found some larger appeal in the mid aughts with acts like Minus the Bear, Battles, and early The Mars Volta, only to find itself in deeply ingrained in too many shitty metal and emo bands. There are still bands that fully embrace the moniker (See: those shitty bands ambiguously alluded to a moment ago) and bands that manage to delicately and seamlessly fold their proficiency into great songs without ever coming off as overly-proficient (See: still American Football, Maps and Atlases, Grizzly Bear [*gulp*]).
Warning signs seem to litter the road to technical proficiency proclaiming “use it; don’t abuse it,” but the portend is rarely heeded to much chagrin. For this reason Twin Ponies’ first full length LP Twin Ponies manages to go down like a fine Belgian beer; the overall impact is so transcendent and the intricacies of the playing so finely and evenly brewed as to never make the casual listener feel out of their depth.
The album’s finest moments work in service of a feeling of contraction and expansion. Keys and dynamics shift throughout; guitars do high-wire acts, but never forget the simple pleasures either. For example, the album’s first track opens with a quietly gritty ascending and descending riff as singer Wayne Jones whispers and sighs “I’m happiest kicking and screaming” before the song explodes in introduction of the entire band. A melodic guitar chimes and dwindles, pushes in and out, and never for a second lets us forget just how catchy it is. Helping to dichotomize the song are surges of feedback and frenzied guitar/drums, skillfully played, but always just a hair away from being completely bowled over. Unlike a lesser band might, Twin Ponies never let these noisy passages feel masturbatory, aimless, or unnecessary, rather they help to paint a portrait of a world equally beautiful and chaotic: a not entirely prescient, but nonetheless necessary component of the musical landscape in 2017.
Meanwhile “Ends and Pieces,” possibly the record’s most masterful track, zips between uber-catchy feedback-laden verses before abruptly shifting tempo with a glistening guitar peal that ushers the song into it’s slow-dancing midsection. Jones sings and plays with the urgency of a thief, fresh from a recent plunder, stopping dead in his tracks only to realize the awful thing he’s just done. As trouble catches up with the singer, the song speeds back up and races to the finish line. Constantly shifting dynamics can be confounding or frustrating for listener’s expecting formula or to not have to constantly adjust the volume knob at home, but the shifts, while unexpected, are so well-constructed and executed that it feels like the band is inviting us into their crooked world.
Several subsequent songs cater to this chaos/clarity dynamic to satisfying effect, namely “Thumbs Down” and “All That’s Left,” but what comes as a pleasant surprise is just how comfortable and willing this band is to take a breather and quiet things down. In fact, the hushed moments on “Thumbs Down” and the slow crawl of songs like “Pipius” and closing track “All That’s Left” are some of the strongest on the record. Tension burbles under the surface like the best of Unwound and the dissonant guitars are never far from these gentler moments, often reverberating somewhere in the background like the omnipotent stranger you look over your shoulder for as you walk down a city street late at night.
Discussing this album, with all of its dynamic shifts and disquieting melodicism, however, without praising the sheer power and quality of songwriting in the rousing album highlight “Humpty” would be shameful. Tucked into the record’s midsection between the churning quiet epic of “Thumbs Down” and the brief caffeine high of “Groundskeeper” is what could be one of the catchiest and emphatic choruses this side of Jeff Rosenstock. The song delicately announces itself with some breezy guitar calisthenics, making it sound like this is the band’s autumnal folk cut. Luckily, this beaut of a start is only the warm up before the power chords get pumped up to eleven and the listener is left trying to catch their breath. The song is full of the same youthful excitement and intrigue that compels even the most conscientious of youngins’ to throw caution and run down the street with their favorite song pumping through their thoughts at full volume. Barely stopping for a breath, the chorus, full of emphatically jovial “Whoa-oh’s,” mows down the competition with its earworm of a hook and the bracing transcendence of Arcade Fire, without the overwrought theatricality.
Best of all is the incessant refusal of this band to ever ape the style of others. From start to finish it feels like a genuinely organic effort on everyone’s behalf. Nothing is cloying. Nothing is pandering. Nothing is derivative. And hopefully, with a little work, the borders of Arizona won’t be able to hold down power like this for long. So we, the world, await.