It’s quite an album opening for anyone oblivious as to what to suspect. A low lingering piano note, a flutter of distorted noise, and then a drum groove of a production somewhere between that bright 80s snare snap and Steve Albini’s oaky, enveloping sense of space. On one hand, it’s unsettling and cruelly angular, jutting out like music formed from rusted junkyard scraps; yet somehow it simultaneously reclines into the kind of sombre jazz mood conveyed by the likes of Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble or Kammerflimmer Kollektief, pushed gently out of the crooked woodwork via little bubbles of organ. Where next?
To begin with, nowhere seems beyond reach. Each listener will no doubt have their own views on which of the album’s eclectic quirks are “acceptable” and which are not, and while my own listening experience of MTOB is littered with jolts of both ecstatic enjoyment and immense frustration, the journey is all the more engrossing for pinballing between these impulsive extremes of like and dislike. Particular highlights include the sludgy distortion gush from nowhere on “Schizopolis”, writhing worm of a bassline crawling out of the luscious opening of “Maladaptive”, and the flick of the psychotic switch that sends the gentle plod of “Bipolar” into some kind of serrated nu-metal jam.
Then there are the stretches of tepidity, where MTOB slackened their flair for surprise to slump into indistinctive stretches of groove, devoid of those explosions of sweet and sharp that characterise the album’s most enveloping moments. Unfortunately this seems to be a more regular occurrence as the album moves into the second half: “King Cockroach” seesaws casually between reggae and downtuned metallics until it becomes tiresome, while “Fist Full Of Flies” plods vacantly through bass riffs and streams of piano improvisation without convincingly collating its separate segments into one.
Returning to those opening few tracks after the sedated jams of the latter half puts the band’s strengths in startling perspective. MTOB are undoubtedly at their most involving when their ties to style and sound are at their most brittle; constantly under threat from overhauls in mood, and forever itching to push tone and technique beyond the boundaries of comfort. Here’s hoping that future releases reprise the band at their most invigorating and reckless.