Thursday, November 13, 2014
In praise of the big: Antemasque's stellar debut
Here, via Wondering Sound, are my thoughts on the new self-titled debut by Antemasque, one of my favorite records of 2014.
As a child of the ’90s, I grew up in a time of big, weird, bombastic, accessible rock music. Metal, alternative, rap-rock, what have you. The subgenre wasn't as important as the high level of quality and the unabashed polish of the presentation. I grew up loving records like Clutch's self-titled 1995 LP, Quicksand's Slip, Rage Against the Machine's Evil Empire, Jawbox's For Your Own Special Sweetheart, Pantera's Far Beyond Driven, Helmet's Betty. Big, splashy, major-label records made by innovative bands with (for the most part) what was then thought of as indie cred. To me, there was nothing more exciting than the mingling of idiosyncrasy and massiveness. These records sounded and felt huge. I cherished my Dischord and Touch and Go albums, too, of course, but I found the replayability of the albums above, and others like them, to be unusually high. I wanted them on all the time.
When I first heard the Mars Volta's De-Loused in the Comatorium, it struck me as the early-aughts version of the kind of record I'm talking about above. It was a huge record, with crystal-clear production and heart-punching hooks. But it was clearly also the product of a weird, personal, insular vision. I didn't know At the Drive-In's work well at the time, but in hindsight, De-Loused was very much aligned in spirit with a record like Slip or Betty—the work of kids with one foot in punk/hardcore and one foot in, for lack of a better term, Big Rock. Like Walter Schreifels or Page Hamilton or J. Robbins or the Clutch dudes, the Mars Volta's Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala wanted to retain their identity while expanding their scope and reach. It's a tricky balancing act, but when a band really pulls it off, the results can be magical and timeless. On De-Loused, the Mars Volta pulled it off. That record is a classic. Like several of the others listed above, it still sounds absolutely explosive and fresh to me today.
The Mars Volta's subsequent output didn't click with me in the same way. When I heard Frances the Mute, the follow-up to De-Loused, I was disappointed to find a more diffuse and, to my ears, pretentious presentation. The rock, the hugeness, the fun was more elusive; the tedious neoprog sprawl seemed to dominate. (I'm absolutely not disparaging prog or neoprog here; I'm just saying that I preferred the obviously proggish but much more immediate Mars Volta of De-Loused to the more self-consciously arty one of Frances.) I gradually lost track of a band that had once seemed to me like a great hope of smart, eccentric mainstream rock. I heard bits and pieces of the later Mars Volta records, but nothing that really drew me in.
Flash forward to this summer. Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala had reconciled after the Mars Volta's messy split, and they were teasing a new project. A few singles emerged, and they sounded good to me. I kept an eye out for the full album, and got ahold of it after the band posted it to Bandcamp momentarily. Antemasque hooked me instantly. I felt that rush of immediacy that I'd been looking for since De-Loused, since all those ’90s records I mentioned above. I knew very quickly that this was one of those huge records, a definitive statement by dudes with arty impulses but the good sense to streamline their output, to craft a record that you can just crank up and feel, really live with. Antemasque simply flows, and explodes, and kicks major amounts of ass. Like De-Loused—although Antemasque is a very different, more straightforwardly rock-oriented band than Mars Volta—this album is a blast.
While preparing for my write-up, I caught up on all the Mars Volta and At the Drive-In I didn't know. I found great tracks nestled everywhere in the discography, from the earliest ATDI ("Star Slight" and "Initiation," from their first LP, Acrobatic Tenement, blew my mind with their scrappy, passionate emo-ness) to the latest MV (I found myself gravitating to their final album, Noctourniquet—maybe the most un-rocking, un–De-Loused-like of their records).
I think Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala are geniuses (especially when working together), and have been pretty much since they began collaborating. But making a truly great record is about more than genius. It's about crafting something that truly engages all the way through. Concision is one method. It's the one these artists have chosen on Antemasque, and it works beautifully. I saw Antemasque live the other night, and the show was everything I hoped it would be—fun, concise (Rodríguez-López's spellbinding guitar-heroics and Bixler-Zavala's magnetic stage presence—these two really are our generation's Page/Plant—saved a couple fairly lengthy jams from tedium), energetic as hell. It was about the songs, and this band has a lot of great ones.
I'm not going to refer objectively to a return to form, because that implies that mid-to-late period Mars Volta was somehow a mistake. Clearly the band didn't think it was, so in a sense, it wasn't. But to this listener, Antemasque does represent the point at which I jump back on the bandwagon. I'm all in with these guys again, and it feels wonderful. I hope they keep making more massive, molten masterpieces like Antemasque. Let's hear it for the big.