Music Review: Mute Math – Armistice (2009)

Mute Math is a special band for me.  I grew up listening exclusively to Contemporary Christian Music,  which is all well and good for a young’un growing up in a Christian home, but eventually one’s taste has to expand.  I mean let’s face it, CCM isn’t exactly a musical pioneer.  That’s where Mute Math came in.  When I first heard their Reset EP, my eyes where opened, and opened wide.  Mute Math, with only 6 standard length tracks and one short outro, managed to hook me with the solid pop/rock conventions that I had always appreciated, and at the same time introduce me to ideas which at the time seemed wildly experimental, and even now after I have undergone 5 years of musical exploration remain pleasing and refreshing.  Their self titled debut long-player satisfied my cravings for more;  Mute Math nearly flawlessly managed to combine pop/rock conventions with hip hop beats, jazz flairs, industrial effects, and experimental stylings.  Mute Math quickly rose to the top of my admittedly small vocabulary of artists.

It should come as no surprise then, that I looked forward to Armistice with both extreme anticipation and nervous unease.  After all, since I had last purchased the self titled album 3 years ago, far more sonically inventive bands had worked their way into my listening time.  Would Armistice expand upon the experiments and instrumentals so seamlessly presented on Reset EP and the self-titled, or would it “sell out”, influenced by the relative success of their single “Typical”?  Unfortunately, the latter is inarguably true.  Whether due to “Typical”, or the new producer, or some other factor, one cannot know, but it is clear that Mute Math are dedicated to focusing on their pop side rather than their more inventive side that had been so promisingly hinted at before.

Of course, it would be unfair to criticize a band simply for choosing a direction that I personally don’t care as much for.  There are some undoubtedly potent moments here.  After the energetic but primitive opener, “The Nerve”, “Backfire” stutters in, introducing a delicious, contagiously unconventional guitar riff and one of Paul Meany’s strongest choruses yet.  “Spotlight” and “Goodbye” are both fast-paced and catchy songs that stand out well against some of the slower numbers.  “Armistice” exposes Mute Math’s New Orleans background by featuring the Rebirth Brass Band, who help to accentuate an album highlight.  “Clipping”, the clear highlight of the album, could stand against nearly any song in Mute Math’s catalog, thanks in large part to a rousing string section that winds through the bridge and supports a soaring, albeit somewhat underdeveloped chorus.

However, as much as Mute Math shines more than ever in some areas, they have suffered just as much in others.  The album feels very artificial compared to the self titled.  “Pins & Needles” and “The Lost Year” are pleasant enough Ballads, but feel arbitrary, and the introduction of strings, although welcome on “Clipping”, sound like they are included for convention’s sake.  In several areas the album feels overly busy, which clouds things and makes the album feel a bit samey.  A few isolated listens will reveal “Odds” to be a standout track, but it’s difficult to distinguish amongst “Goodbye” and the near painful “Electrify”.  The artificial tendencies are no more clear anywhere than on album closer “Burden”.  The 9+ minute song opens with an unmemorable, upbeat song that pales next to “Spotlight” and “Goodbye”.  It’s the ambient interlude that follows that is oddly the best moment on the song.  A potent, if repetitive melody briskly floats above a soundscape that does far more to capture attention than the cashed in opening portion of the song.  The interlude eventually gives way to a tame drum solo, which feels very tacked on, as if Mute Math suddenly remembered that they could do that sort of thing, and half-heartedly rushed to stick it on there.  It’s an awkward and unfitting ending to an album that, if it had wanted a 9 minute closing track, should have offered some sort of structural balance throughout the rest of the album.

Then there’s the issue of songwriting.  While Meany is by no means a particularly poor songwriter, he’s become a very stagnant one.  The lyrics are kept very simple, often embarrassingly so, such as on “The Nerve”.  More than that though, he doesn’t seem willing to really take his songs anywhere.  We know that he can, as proved by the likes of old songs such as “Break the Same” and “Stall Out”, as well as by his excellent live performances.  However, the album lacks the flair and direction that I had been hoping for; he generally seems content to deliver his simple lines, occasionally adding a bit of variation in his delivery, such as the added raspyness on “Pins & Needles”.  Part of the problem is the production.  I hate to blame an album’s faults on the producer when I had very little insight into the studio, but the production on the vocals is too artificial; some of the effects are entirely unnecessary, when we know that Meany is perfectly capable of delivering without electronic assistance.  Next time around, Meany is going to need to make an effort to sophisticate his songwriting approach both lyrically and melodically and be more willing to experiment with vocal variation.  Darren King’s percussion antics can only hold so much of the burden.

That said, Armistice is by no stretch of the imagination a bad album.  It may seem odd that I’m assigning a fairly high score to an album that I’ve primarily criticized.  The tone of the review can be attributed to the expectations that Mute Math had set with their past efforts.  If anything, Armistice is a testament to Mute Math’s overall worth; they’ve taken another small step down (Reset > s/t > Armistice… We’ll ignore the abysmal Spotlight EP), and still have a great album on their hands.

Final Score: 8.0/10

Highlights: Backfire, Clipping, Spotlight, Odds

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2 Responses to “Music Review: Mute Math – Armistice (2009)”

  1. I disagree with your statement on Paul Meany’s lyrics. What exactly defines “good lyrics”? Just because a song uses short, quick lines which repeat a few words every time(The Nerve) doesn’t mean that it’s weak. That seems to be one of ideas I get from the review While it is true that MM is going to be more of a pop-oriented band in terms of their marketing, this has not hurt the songwriting. There are several good lines in these songs that stick out to me.

    In The Nerve, one could interpret the opening lines as a comment on society, especially here:

    Can you believe this world’s yellin’ out in the dark it wants to be left alone?

    Also, in Burden, the song finishes with a particularly strong line:

    “The devil is not the nature that is within us
    But the nature that is inside of us all”

    An interesting line, especially if you consider it in the context that they could still be using some of their Christian-rock themes in their songs.

    Just a bit of food for thought. Altogether, good review.

    • liffeymusic Says:

      Thanks for the reply! I do actually like that line from Burden, it’s one of the highlights lyrically and musically.

      As for my criticisms, most of the lines here don’t leave much room for interpretation. Lines like “Can you believe this world’s yellin’ out in the dark it wants to be left alone?” are just too obvious and too cliche. It may be my personal taste, but I prefer lyrics that aren’t so blatant and overdone. If you’re going to tackle some themes that have already been written about many times, you need to put a new spin on them, or it’s just going to sound old, even if it hasn’t necesarily been written exactly that way before. Btw, I meant to primarily criticize the chorus of The Nerve… the line you mentioned isn’t really that bad at all.

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