I love the drums. Being an avid guitarist whose grasp of rhythmic syncopation is basic at best, I am always in awe of how drummers manage to persuade their limbs to perform completely different functions at once, producing either the most complex or simplistically fitting of beats. There is also the way in which drums are captured on an album which, in my eyes, is arguably the most essential tonal quality of a record (not including vocals). Songs For The Deaf is one of my favourite drum albums of all time, because of the HUGE sound that Dave Grohl produces, especially on the bass drum, and the perfect playing that accompanies each song. Would this album sound half as good if the kick drum had played a smaller part in the sound, or if the drums did not pleasingly reverberate in your head?
One such band who possess a drummer that one can only marvel at is Chicago’s Maps & Atlases. In addition to having a magician behind the kit, they have matured through their four releases in a manner befitting of adept musicians. This is far more likeable than say, for example, the way Biffy Clyro have matured from Infinity Land (genius) to Only Revolutions (abomination). Having said that, the back catalogue that Maps & Atlases have produced is stronger than their most recent release Beware And Be Grateful (2012), but it still offers more to grab hold of than other bands.
I first discovered Maps & Atlases back in 2010, and had the privilege of seeing them at SXSW in 2011. I’ve only just found out that I missed them on a European tour they did this month, and it hurts bad, dear Lord.
First up – Tree, Swallows, Houses.
Released in 2007, this gem of an EP is chock full of ideas mashed together to produce a coherent introduction to the band. It showcases their musical prowess and is a release of accessible madness, treading the fine line between genres that blurs pop and math rock together. God knows how many people I’ve posted this song to, but Stories About Ourselves is exciting, frenetic and catchy. The detail involved is hugely rewarding with each listen: the instantly punchy kick drum/snare intro at 0.04 to 0.07; the intricate open string pull offs from 0.26; the disco indie beat from 0.42; the all out chaos at 1.17 to 1.24; the drum work from 1.39 to 1.48; the hand claps at 2.05; the xylophone at 2.34.
Other EP highlights include The Most Trustworthy Tin Cans, with its tapped bass line forming the basis of a dissonant jaunt, and Big Bopper Anthems, a perpetually rolling stop start pop waltz.
Released in 2008, mini EP You And Me And The Mountain followed the first release and portrays similar traits of the songwriting style used in Tree, Swallows, Houses. However, the production is notably slicker and warmer, with Dave Davsion’s distinct vocals coming to the forefront. The guitar and bass work is also more reserved, following the vocal melodies closely, and represents a shift toward making music that is more radio friendly. Once again though, the drumming retains its variant brilliance and is astonishing on this record.
There is not a single bad tune to be found, and each has their own unique nuances. Witch is a dark and fuzzy folk tune, whilst Daily News is an initially slow burning, hazy groove that crescendos intensely before dropping away again. The title track is a clear highlight, alternating between plastic woodblock inspired passages and straight up indie.
Also taken from You And Me And The Mountain, this live performance of Ted Zancha clearly displays the abundance of talent the band possess, none more so than drummer Chris Hainey. An interesting tale of a World War II veteran who leaves behind photographs of the stars of yesteryears, the song itself is a well structured slab of alternative rock with typical use of guitar tapping and developed bass playing. Stealing the show is the drumming however, which never fails to leave me wide eyed upon watching this video. From 1.30 to 2.20, and 3.01 to 3.15, it is nothing short of spectacular.
And so to the two full albums that have been released: 2010’s Perch Patchwork and 2012’s Beware And Be Grateful.
Mixed reviews have met these two records, with lack of direction and cohesion central to given criticism. Certainly if you are a fan of the earlier math pop mentalness, much like myself, then the two albums are a significant shift in pace. But, while the group have evolved in their songwriting style, they still retain their originality and roots. There is no change to try and write stadium hits which usually consist of boring, middle of the road anthems (with the exception of Vampires perhaps).
Perch Patchwork is the stronger of the two albums. A curious mix of droning melodies, world music influences and their signature elaborate rhythms, the album is much lighter and folk influenced with a broad range of effects, instruments and vocal harmonies. Highlights include Will, Living Decorations, Pigeon and Carrying The Wet Wood. Banished Be Cavalier is also taken from the album.
Beware And Be Grateful is altogether more hit and miss. It took a good few listens to scratch the surface, and has a couple of dire tracks, but is still a decent listen once imprinted upon your mind. The world music influences are scattered throughout, such as Old Ash, leading to comparisons with bands such as Vampire Weekend. Be Three Years Old is a nod to the ‘old days’ style of writing, whilst Winter canters along with some interesting ideas. The album highlight for me is the opening track Old & Grey, which moves through a patient build up before settling on a motif of layered vocals and electronic noises.
Dave Davison’s voice is the at the centre of Beware And Be Grateful’s focus, and this is no bad thing, but the music takes a hit somewhat in pursuing vocal and sampling cleverness over raw instrumentation. It will be interesting to see where Maps & Atlases go from here, but I do hope that the fantastic drumming comes back to the fore. And yes, I am selfish like that. Drums rule.