Album: Play Dead
In Brief: It’s chill and yet energetic, stripped down at times and yet very dense and “jammy” at others. A deliberate contrast to Vitals at times, yet the parallel writing process of both albums shows through occasionally. While I don’t think this is MuteMath’s best work, I have to separate my negative feelings about the recent departure of two band members from my opinion of the material on this album that was recorded while they were still very much a part of the creative process.
It’s hard to know how to feel when a beloved musician departs from a favorite band. If you’re a MuteMath fan, I’m sure you’ve heard the news by now: Over the summer, lead singer Paul Meany announced on social media that drummer Darren King had abruptly left the band, effective immediately, without citing the reason why. This had actually happened a little while before that, but the band hesitated to make the announcement until they could recruit a replacement for their upcoming tour. They managed to do this (pulling in their old pal David Hutchison from the Earthsuit days and putting him through what must have been a rather extreme crash course in order to get him up to speed), but the timing was still pretty much the worst. With a new album, Play Dead, set to be released a mere month after the announcement, and the tour for that album starting up in the fall, it was pretty awful to have the headline “Darren King leaves MuteMath” hanging over the band’s head, quite possibly overshadowing the buzz they might have otherwise gotten from the album’s release. Making matters worse, their longtime bassist Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas had already announced his departure in January (which seemed to be a little better planned out since the group was able to replace him with Jonathan Allen well ahead of the tour, but still). Now the band was down two original members, with their original guitarist Greg Hill having left under similarly abrupt circumstances many years ago during the making of 2011’s Odd Soul.
With most bands, a drummer or bass player could leave, and your average fan might not even notice. Typically lead vocalists and guitarists are the big creative forces behind most rock bands, with the rhythm section playing more of a supportive “just here to keep the beat” role. But MuteMath was different, and with all due respect to the solid songwriting and vocal output Paul Meany has provided over the years, Darren King was every bit as much of a creative contributor to MuteMath, not to mention an unstoppable beast in their live shows. Just watching him go nuts on the drum kit and pull various crazy antics as he interacted with the crowd was a massive part of the appeal. I’m pretty confident in saying he’s one of the absolute best drummers of our generation. Roy, for his part, was no slouch on the bass and several other instruments – I’ll always fondly remember his distinctive upright bass part on “Stare at the Sun/Obsolete”, for example – and he valiantly stepped in when the band suddenly found themselves without a guitarist in between Greg Hill and newer recruit Todd Gummerman. These aren’t the type of vacancies that can be filled with just any old hired gun. Why people keep leaving this band under mysterious circumstances, I honestly can’t say. The obvious joke here is that Paul Meany lives up to his name as a bandmate, but truthfully, everything I’ve seen of the guy would seem to indicate he’s one of the nicest and most hard-working men in rock music today. I really can’t speculate too much on this, other than to say something’s fishy, and while nobody owes us an explanation, it certainly would be nice for us fans to get some closure one of these days. Even though Play Dead was in the can before Darren left (and I think mostly before Roy left as well?), and for the most part you’re still hearing the MuteMath you’ve always known and loved on this record, it’s hard not to be haunted by the specter of what could have been as you listen to it.
Setting aside the band’s increasingly worrisome lineup issues, it’s important to note that Play Dead was being worked on before the band’s fourth record, Vitals, even started to take shape. Back when I reviewed Vitals in late 2015, I had been under the impression that they’d started another album, scrapped it, and taken a whole other approach to come up with their fourth album, just as they had between their self-titled and Armistice. That turned out to be inaccurate – I had no idea at the time that the band would come back to those sessions and dedicate some tender loving care to them, putting what they felt were the ten best of the bunch on an album that aimed to be as indulgent as Vitals was stripped down. Truthfully, that notion of stripping Vitals down to the basics always seemed rather odd to me, as several of its songs sound to me like they’ve got a lot of layers going on at once, and they have that “wall of sound” quality I’ve always enjoyed MuteMath for. Still, it’s more of a radio-friendly album, where Play Dead could be seen as a little more structurally complex, a bit more “jammy”, and maybe a tad more experimental and ragged around the edges. It’s not quite the musical tour de force designed to replicate their live show energy that Odd Soul was, but there’s something unique about the groove-centric focus of much of this album that sets it apart from MuteMath’s previous work. I really do like this idea in principle, especially since I feel like I’m one of the few MuteMath fans who defends Odd Soul as their best work thus far, and this feels more like a synthesis of that record and Vitals to my ears. In practice, it can sometimes lead to songs that might get some good guitar licks and drum grooves going, and that often have the feel-good melodies you’d expect from a MuteMath song, but that don’t quite engage me in the way that some of their more exploratory work has in the past. On several occasions, while I might superficially enjoy a song, I don’t have a strong reaction to it other than, “Yup, that there’s a MuteMath song.” It’s hard to explain my mixed reactions here, because the sheer length of this album (51 minutes as opposed to Vitals‘ 47 – and that album had 12 tracks to this album’s 10!) got me excited the second I first loaded it up in Spotify, but the thrill of having a new MuteMath record to listen to wore off kind of quickly for me this time around. At its worst, Play Dead either retreads ideas from older MuteMath songs, or settles for simpler beats and riff that kind of seem beneath the talented players who have proven themselves over and over to be something special in years past. It’s a good MuteMath album, as they all are, but something’s missing and it’s hard to put my finger on what.
Lyrically, Play Dead has more of a direct lyrical focus than a lot of their albums do, which for me is another thing that puts it in league with Odd Soul, in terms of intent if not quality. Growing older, being at a crossroads in your career, wondering what the whole purpose of it is and wanting to find any way you can to keep things fresh and new… these are well-explored ideas that a lot of musicians have ruminated on during a mid-life crisis. MuteMath’s take on it tends to be more encouraging and uplifting than a lot of bands, while still taking time to acknowledge the hardships and doubts. It feels like a very personal record for Paul Meany, even if he doesn’t tend to be the world’s most specific songwriter. This theme may be what keeps some of the band’s pure energy at bay on a few tracks, as if they’re deliberately reining in some of their relentless tendencies in order to make sure the intended mood of the song isn’t missed. (That may have been Odd Soul‘s biggest weakness, admittedly – it was such a dense and performance-oriented record that I remember it more for its many kickass musical moments than I do for an emotional connection to most of its songs.) It’s an interesting and mostly agreeable approach. There’s usually enough going on texture-wise that even when a song falls flat in terms of melody or energy, I can appreciate the band’s ongoing love for filtering and tweaking their instruments through various forms of modern and outdated equipment, that continues to make them unique among their more chart-friendly, electronic-oriented contemporaries. Honestly, there isn’t a lowlight here as badly written as “Best of Intentions” or as forgettable as some of the slower moments on Armistice. Still, if you’re a longtime fan and you find that this record sometimes gets a bit tedious to listen to all the way through, you’re not alone. I can only wonder how they might have pushed themselves if they knew this was the last time they’d get to jam in the studio with Roy and Darren. As the last record made by most of MuteMath’s original lineup, there’s a lot more on Play Dead‘s shoulders than they could have anticipated while recording it, and I can’t help but feel that this hurts its standing in the band’s discography overall, even though I recognize how unfair that probably sounds.
1. Hit Parade
You know something’s going to be different about this album when, instead of aggressive drums or guitars, it opens with Paul Meany’s smooth vocals and subdued keyboards instead. It’s a bit of a bait-and-switch, because the song definitely gets more energetic in a way you wouldn’t predict from that opening. All the same, this is a pretty clear sign that MuteMath threw out the rulebook on at least some of their new material, and this song’s placement as both the opening track and the album’s first single shows that they’re proud of it. The lyrics of this song seem to start out from a place of having lost someone and trying to move on, but as the song picks up momentum and the band starts to throw in more playful riffs and drum fills and shouts, it becomes more about wanting it all and believing the sky’s the limit. Meany’s lyrics are unusual even compared to the open-ended nature of some of the stuff he’s written in the past: “Gold coins, I want it/Yellow doubloons, I need it/A silo, I want it/Stuffed animals, I need it/Mama, I’m runnin’/Feeling so electric/Tie yourself to me/Cavernous jewelry.” Probably the biggest clue as to what this all means comes at the end, when an recording of Meany’s grandfather (who passed away in 2010) is played, and apparently he was a performing musician as well, heard here in his old age reminiscing about the good old days when he was “number one on the hit parade”. At first I thought it was a bit cheap to rely on a sound clip to explain the song when the lyrics either should have done that job better or been content to leave the song open to interpretation. But I can appreciate that this song is very personal for Meany, and that the group worked very hard on this one, starting and stopping it over the course of several years, leading to the almost schizophrenic patchwork of ideas that seems to pull together all the different aspects we’ve loved about MuteMath’s personality over the years – smooth, reassuring balladry, improvisational bits of guitar and keytar and who-knows-what-other-distorted-instruments leading the melody to places you don’t expect it to go, a strong focus on rhythm that goes from a steady beat to playfully offbeat, and an overall commitment to making something that would no doubt be fun to watch the band perform. I can’t say this is a personal favorite of mine – I’m torn over the fact that this is the first album of theirs that doesn’t open with a total banger. But it shows a lot of ingenuity, and I do appreciate it for that.
2. Pixie Oaks
The downside of a band like MuteMath that is renowned for all the high-octane performances they’ve given over the years is that when they do something with more basic ingredients, even if it might be interesting by a more conventional rock band’s standards, it can come across as underwhelming. That’s basically my experience with this song, which is largely built around a guitar riff that Roy came up with years ago (presumably when he was the band’s interim guitarist before Todd came on board). It sounds rather flat and simplistic to me, but the band really loved it and decided to build a song around it. Darren’s drum parts honestly aren’t all that exciting here either, feeling like a limp reflection of what would otherwise be a fun, syncopated, old-school soul kind of beat. The song feels rigid where it’s supposed to be spacious and playful, and as a result it kind of bores me. the real kicker is that it’s a song Meany wrote for his daughter, about rediscovering the joy of his own childhood at a playground he used to visit as a kid (which gives the track his name) that he started taking her to. I’m a sucker for a good father-daughter bonding moment, so this should be right up my alley. I just don’t think the music fits it, much as they might try to liven it up with a halfway decent drum solo, some “la-la-la”s that sound like they belong in an Alt-J song, and the drums finally coming more alive as the song reaches its final chorus. On the first few listens, not knowing that he was singing his daughter’s name, “My Amelia”, in the chorus, I thought it was “Mamma Mia”, which made it sound like the most inept MuteMath lyric of all time. The misunderstanding was my fault, but still, Paul’s enunciation isn’t the greatest here. I hate to struggle so much with a song that’s supposed to be carefree and uncomplicated, but sorry, that’s my honest reaction to it.
3. Stroll On
The rhythm-focused, yet laid-back vibe of the album comes across best on this track, which in some ways feels like classic MuteMath, but which also isn’t afraid to delve into weirder territory than anything on Vitals. If that record’s title track was a little more out there with its instrumental solos, you might get the concluding part of this track, which is a bizzare, spacey little jam session that feels like it’s been fed through all manner of strangely wired circuitry and other forms of electronic manipulation, while still having an improvised, live band feel to it, if that makes any sense at all. I’m compelled to talk about the ending first because it’s the most memorable part of the song, but this one also boasts one of the album’s strongest melodic hooks – not so much an in-your-face, power poppy sort of hook like the more energetic songs on Vitals, but certainly an upbeat one that fits the narrative of confidently walking out on familiar surroundings and embracing a new beginning. The lyrics bring back a bit of the Odd Soul feel, imagining faith as something that needs to be dynamic and embrace uncertainty rather than being static and rigid, knowing full well this more exploratory belief system won’t play well with the old guard who somehow still expects “Christian rock” after all these years: “Faith in a line of fire of heresy/Ashamed to give it another shot/Bold moves hardly start out carefully/Afraid of becoming something that they’re not.” You could also interpret this as fans seeing a shift in a band’s sound as sacrilege when they’re strongly attached to the band’s earliest work, which I think is a problem MuteMath deals with a lot due to having started out with such a phenomenal debut. While this one doesn’t quite reach the heights of my personal favorites from past albums, it’s a testament to MuteMath’s commitment to pushing themselves artistically, and given that, it’s actually a surprisingly compact song, ending suddenly with the sound of a bouncing ping-pong ball where you might expect more of an extended outro. (We’ll come back to this idea later.)
4. Break the Fever
The band gets really deep into the funk on this one. You can hear it from the very first, conspicuously stuttering notes that open it, soon giving way to another up-tempo yet laid-back beat in keeping with “Stroll On”, but taking a little more time to marinate in the groove once it gets going. Meany’s lyrics about self-doubt, fighting the voices in his head, and even trying to “play dead” to get them to stop border on psychedelic, in keeping with the era of music that apparently inspired the song. It’s fun and freaky, though I have to point out again that if this description has you expecting Odd Soul, you’ll have to reign that expectation in a bit, and listen more for the smooth melody, the interesting low-end textures coming from the super-sized bass and distorted drums (especially in the eerie, chewed-up outro), and those keyboard effects that are so 70s they might as well be pastel-colored, than you would for an intense, climactic sort of performance. So far I think the band’s actually done better on this album when they’ve focused more on their funk and electronic influences than on their rock influences, which might just be a side effect of them deliberately dialing back the intensity of volume to give each instrument more room to shine. It’s a decent trade-off in this particular case. I have to ding them slightly for reusing a keyboard loop that sounds an awful lot like “Stratosphere”, but that’s one of my favorite MuteMath songs and this one does something quite different with it, so I can’t complain too much.
Here’s where I feel like I do have to complain a little more loudly about MuteMath copying their own past work. This song is pretty much all keyboards and vocals, and the keyboards are pinned to a repeating sequence where they hit every quarter note, growing in volume as the song gently rises to its most climactic moment and then fading away again. it’s pretty, and Paul sings compellingly over it, but these are pretty much the exact same ingredients used on Odd Soul‘s closing track, “In No Time”. That song at least brought in percussion and more of a “full-band” feel for a more satisfying finish, while this one doesn’t really have anything for the rest of the band to do. it’s the shortest song on the album as well, making it more direct where most of the album tends to meander. I’m OK with that, since it emphasizes Paul’s message of stubbornly telling someone to cling to hope as they’re showing him the door, and he’s apologetically (or perhaps sarcastically) saying he won’t trouble them any more once he says his piece. The layered vocals are nice as they briefly reach peak intensity during the bridge, but despite that, the song feels like it’s missing something. I’d like it more if I hadn’t heard MuteMath flesh out ideas like this more fully in previous songs.
6. Placed on Hold
I took a while to really make up my mind about whether this song was great, or merely good. I’m slowly settling on “great”, and I think the reason I’m having a hard time catching up is because it’s (initially, at least) more of a slow, spacious song following an already slow, spacious song. The track order doesn’t do it any favors – this is the kind of long, progressive-leaning rock ballad that really needs to be a clear breather between more intense moments to have the greatest impact. It starts off with acoustic guitar – something I’m definitely not used to hearing a whole lot of on a MuteMath record, and a beat in 6/8 that vaguely reminds me of “Stare at the Sun”. It’s not nearly as trippy as that song, but I do really enjoy what they’ve done with the chord progression and Paul’s vocal melody here – his lyrics seem to be describing a time spent in the doldrums, creatively speaking, but the way he sings it is actually very calming and reassuring to my ears, reminding me of the wonder I felt the first time I heard their song “You Are Mine”. I’m treading on thin ice with these comparisons to songs from their first album that could probably never be lived up to, but it’s honestly great to be reminded of those old songs while listening to a new one that isn’t an obvious attempt to copy either one of them. This song really comes alive when the electric guitar solo kicks in and it goes into full-on rock mode, riding a triumphant refrain of “I know, we’ll walk a last mile together!/And I know, we’ll have a home in forever!” through to the end. Like most of the back half of this album, this one doesn’t mind taking over five minutes to make sure it’s an immersive experience, and I really do appreciate it for that, since it does it a way that pretty clearly stands out from the tracks surrounding it.
7. Everything’s New
I like to describe this song as “MuteMath in maximum chill mode, while still having a beat.” The funk influence is certainly back here, but instead of it being the kind of funk you work up a sweat to, it’s more of a low-key funk that you’d kick back on a sunny day to, with a tall, cold drink in your hand, looking out from a rooftop over a beautiful cityscape, and marveling at a world you’re seeing with new eyes. This one’s got the most encouraging lyrics on the album, since they seem to be about a moment of clarity where previous struggles just seem to melt away. I think the way Paul writes about it is inventive, though honestly I remember this one more for its floating-on-a-cloud groove than I do for anything it has to say. I love the concept of everything suddenly feeling like it’s new again, since it’s the sort of high that is rare to find in life but that really sticks with you in those rare moments when you achieve it. Those expecting some sort of a definitive climax worthy of some bonkers live show footage might not get into this song as much, since it sort of melts away into eternal sunshine rather than hitting us with more of a concretely awesome instrumental performance. But I love how, as it fades out, a wash of keyboards brings back the melody of “Stroll On” for an encore. It’s a nice little reprise that helps me not to feel like I got robbed of anything at the sudden end of that song. It’ll be interesting to see if the band merges the two tracks in some way in their setlists on this tour.
The title pretty much gives away that this is going to be the most conventionally intense, “rock”-type song on the album. It’s interesting to me that they held off until this late in the track listing to drop this one on us. The strong cymbal crashes and the blaring keyboards and guitars in its main hook certainly don’t disappoint. But for a song about internal conflict and how “War is in my nature”, parts of it are surprisingly spacious and calculated. It’s actually a lot like how I felt about “Break the Same” – yeah, I know, another first album comparison, but that honestly wasn’t one of my favorite tracks on that album, because I felt like it promised more intensity than it delivered and took a little too long to make its point. “War” isn’t quite as drawn out, but am I the only one who finds Paul’s casual “da-da-da”s in the chorus to be far too friendly of a melodic hook for the subject matter? I keep getting distracted by the difference between the strife this song’s trying to communicate in its lyrics, and the delicate balance of slow burn vs. full blast that it’s trying to pull off in its performance. There’s certainly a gold mine’s worth of addictive breakdowns and buildups and funky fills from Darren King. I’m sure this one’s probably a scorcher when played live. As an album track, though… I don’t know. It feels a bit bloated, and I can’t say I dislike it, but I get the nagging feeling that they could have really gone balls to the wall and restraining themselves was the wrong move to make here.
9. Achilles Heel
Now if you’re hoping for MuteMath to really let their freak flag fly – and especially if you’re most intrigued by their oddball commentary on some of the band members’ religious upbringing – then have I got a song for you! The album’s most extended jam, at six-and-a-half minutes, finds them manipulating a bit of hip-hop swagger for their own bizarre purposes. I don’t mean that Paul is actually rapping like he did in his Earthsuit days, but you know, I can actually imagine him coming up with something not too far from this back then. The head-bobbing beat, the siren-like electronic effects, and the almost spoken-through-a-megaphone delivery of the lyrics are certainly meant to evoke more of a militant feel. (This is musical territory that Linkin Park has drifted into once or twice on a few of their more experimental, Mike Shinoda-heavy songs.) When you actually pay attention to those lyrics… well, let’s just say these are gonna spark a few debates. “I was born a defender/Of a hell made for sinners/And never did ever forget/That it’s still well equipped for quitters/I’ve been under impressions/Of a God in the heavens/Who strikes down all the heathens/And fights to protect His children.” Yikes, Paul. if I didn’t know you’d better, I’d be wondering if you’d suddenly taken a hard right towards fundamentalism. Since the chorus uses the analogy of an “Achilles heel” as the thing that strikes you down when you think you’re invincible and will live forever, it’s possible that this is some sort of commentary on the sheer hubris of the culture he was brought up in. But I only assume that because of past critiques on this culture heard on a few tracks from Odd Soul. Coming into this cold, I don’t know how one would tell whether he meant this seriously or sarcastically. Regardless of whether the lyrics cause you any personal discomfort, it’s hard to debate that this is a solid performance from MuteMath. It feels like an echo of Odd Soul‘s “Quarantine” at times, though it’s not afraid to break things down to a more minimal approach, with the instruments largely serving a supporting role to Darren’s exploratory jamming, which seems to gradually mellow as the song draws to a close rather than reaching a fervent peak of intensity. As with many songs on this album, I feel like they could have punched it up in some way to ensure a killer ending, and instead they chose a path less traveled, which is interesting from a creative perspective… but come on guys, I want you to crush it instead of just enthusiastically pressing on it!
10. Marching to the End
So, Play Dead opened on a rather unconventional note, so it should close out in a different way than we’ve been led to expect, right? Actually, no. With the exception of Armistice‘s “Burden”, MuteMath’s done the drawn-out, chill ballad thing to end most of their albums, and without exception, those have been solid tracks, but I’m getting diminishing returns from the formula at this point. Having a track that structurally feels very much like “Remain” from their previous album, and that is about as long, kind of dulls the impact of it. It’s not as obvious of a copied idea as “Nuisance” was from “In No Time”. But still, as it very slowly builds to its crescendo and we get a hopeful, repeated refrain overlapping the main chorus, all about how we should hold out hope and keep on fighting for whatever that vague thing is that we’re hoping for, I can’t help but feel like it’s all a bit rote. I don’t mean to be so dismissive about a lyrics that, once again, seems to have had deep personal significance to Paul. He’s pretty clearly facing the prospect of his own mortality here and clinging to a hope that death is not an ending, but rather a beginning. It’s the sort of optimism that I don’t think is in vain, and that I want to root for. But since repetition occupies most of the song, he doesn’t get to delve to deep into it before he’s stuck with the same phrases over and over, and if I were to remove these words from the heavenly combination of piano and strings and synths backing them, they’d seem like they could have come from a generic Switchfoot song: “If it can’t change, we’ll leave it out/If it won’t break, we’ll bleed it out/If it can’t wait, we’ll see it out/We’re gonna make believe it out.” Really, what does that even mean? The encouragement to “Just keep trying, just keep fighting”, etc. at the end of “Remain” was also pretty generic, but at least that pretty clearly meant something. This is just arbitrarily saying positive stuff will happen because negative stuff happened. I like to believe lemons can be made from lemonade, but Paul needs to do a little more work as a lyricist to describe just how he sees that happening.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Hit Parade $1.25
Pixie Oaks $.75
Stroll On $1.75
Break the Fever $1.50
Placed on Hold $1.50
Everything’s New $1.25
Achilles Heel $1.25
Marching to the End $.75
Paul Meany: Lead vocals, keyboards, guitar
Todd Gummerman: Guitar, keyboards, synths, programming, backing vocals
Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas: Guitar, bass, keyboards, backing vocals (no longer with the band)
Darren King: Drums, percussion (no longer with the band)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: