Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Review: Mr Maps - Mimicry of Lines and Light EP

Mr Maps are probably the most meticulously consistent live band in Brisbane; if you're at all into their style of dramatic post rock you'll likely not quickly forget the first time you see the band. Their off nights are tighter than pretty much every other local band's best shows. Sometimes this comes at a cost: there's not a huge difference between one Mr Maps show and the next bar a better venue / sound system and a slight re-ordering of the band's setlist (six songs at last count). Up until now that's been ok because live performance has been the only real method of obtaining a Mr Maps fix - with the release of Mimicry of Lines and Light that's all about to change.

The EP is a curious artifact - it's actually a double EP (coming in a lovely foldout digipack ala The Gin Club's Junk album - artwork apparently care of the band's keyboardist Chloe Cooper, though she's not credited). The first CD, Lines, presents five songs as performed by the live band over the past year or so and recorded by Steve Bartlett; the second CD, Lights, shows us the original forms of these same songs - band leader Chris Perren's more electronic versions, stitched together from separately recorded pieces and moulded into recognisable 'songs' for his Honours thesis.

Lines is the 'feature' release of the two, I guess. As with everything Mr Maps, it's impeccably performed and recorded, although I have heard people complain that it doesn't recreate the same impact of the band in a live setting - personally I disagree, for me the recording hits all the rights notes in terms of clarity, dynamics and punch (especially at high volume). Most importantly it's not fatiguing to listen to - there's no intensely harsh high end or excessive compression. As for the songs themselves, if you've ever seen a Mr Maps show then you've probably heard all five before. For those who haven't, imagine the wide-eyed, optimistically cinematic post-rock of Sigur Ros or Explosions In The Sky with a slightly more technical, math-rock bent ala a more organic Battles. This is big, life affirming stuff - it sure ain't subtle, and it ain't trying to be. This is perhaps best exemplified by the requisite epic closer, 'I See Them, They're Like Mountains', which in its more intense sections may cross the line between emotive catharthis and melodrama, perhaps coming across like an instrumental crescendo from a Creed ballad stretched out to 8 minutes. However, the song is saved by two elements which feature throughout the first disc: exceptional drummer Sangdae Yang's rhythmic variety and prowess, and the almost flawless sense of build-and-fall-away that the band seems to posess - every single composition builds, explodes at just the right time and for just the right length, before falling away to either finish or do it all again. It might occasionally be a bit predictable, but at the same time it can still be immensely satisfying.

'Your Heels In Sand, Soul In Pursuit' is the logical opener, with its moody opening and sudden burst into a rush of drums and guitar one minute in (not to mention the very satisfying 'free jazz' drums at the start and end of the track). 'This Mess Is A Place' shows off the band's musicianship with stop-start riffs and a polyrhythmic middle section that is supremely impressive. The best song to my ears is the relatively short 'Til The Money Outruns Us', which with its complex guitar patterns and galloping rhythm would have made a more unconventional but probably more effective closer to the record. Another highlight is penultimate track 'Like Little Soldiers', which shows the band at their most reflective and is the closest the band gets to that celestial beauty that Explosions In The Sky perfected on their third album - though Mr Maps still end it with some searing guitar distortion.

Lights presents us with the same highlights and issues of the first disc, but perhaps magnified. The complex, intertwining layers are even more complex and intertwined, and the overblown bits are often even more overblown (just listen to the stadium-rock guitars in this version of 'I See Them...'). If the attention to detail in the compositions is even more impressive on this disc, that is conterbalanced by the absence of any feeling of 'wow, this is actually five people playing in a room'. Although I mostly prefer the live band versions, I've heard numerous people say that their favourite of the two discs is Lights.

Now that we have this release in our hands, I hope it heralds in a batch of new songs for the band (though I'm not sure whether this is more or less likely given the recent departure of Nick Smethurst on guitar). Due to the absolute precision inherent in Mr Maps' performances the only variety comes from new material - Mr Maps are a long way from the unpredictable nature of a band like Turnpike, where each performance will offer some unique modification of some segment of a song. On the flipside, the amount of writing and rehearsal that must go into creating this music virtually guarantees that new material will appear at a fairly slow rate. I highly doubt that the band is suddenly going to lose the perfectionist streak that has served them so well to date, so it will be interesting to see how Mr Maps handle this issue of over-familiarisation, if they even consider it at all.

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