Mass Shivers are a fuzzy, psychedelic power trio who named their band based on the mission statement of creating “a sound that would potentially induce convulsions”. But these jammy Chicagoans are no Cream or ZZ Top. In fact, the trim guitar-bass-drums line-up is the most misleading thing you’ll read in their reviews. Fact is, with the layers upon layers of swirling electric guitars, these guys create some of the most dense, overdubbed tunes this side of a Zappa record.
Did I mention the guitars? Clearly, either guitarist/vocalist Brett Sova is running the show in Camp Shivers or the rest of the band is equally in love with the sound of six-strings so massively piled that the tracks often form what more closely resembles walls of tone, rather than riffs. Fun fact: on this release, Mass Shivers trimmed to a three man lineup with Sova handling lone guitar duties (Also misleading, huh?). You have to wonder if bassist Andy Johnson and drummer Sean Wilke learned to play chess like Ringo did during the Sgt. Peppers sessions—they clearly must have had some spare time on their hands.
The press release claims Contoured Heat is “the pinnacle of their career”. What becomes most accurate after listening to the album is that the band certainly believes this album is some sort of grand musical achievement. “Ambitious” is certainly an apt adjective—the arrangements sizzle; the tracks are long-winding and aggressive; no overdub is overlooked. Problem is, parts of Contoured Heat sound labored, as if the band tried too hard to create a “statement” instead of simply focusing on the songs. Most of the problems, however, come down to sonic decision-making: Sova’s guitar parts, while demonstrating a high level of musicianship and creativity, are too often drenched in the same old sludgy, psychedelic effects, rendering many parts indistinguishable from their bretheren.
The ambition often works in their favor—“Outsider Erotica” is so good, it’s scary. Literally. Its 6/8 time signature actually sounds weirder than it is, and the mystical, holy mountain cohesion of guitar, bass, vocal, and drum kit, filtered through a vaguely Middle Eastern scale, manages to conjure frightening visuals. No music video necessary. On powerful, focused moments like these, the scope and majesty of Mass Shivers’ vision is completely clear and warranted. Unfortunately, though, they aren’t able to keep up the pace, notably demonstrated on “Odin V. Oden”, which is all mounting texture with no release, and “Bilateral Dysfunction”, which is the very definition of “filler”, its effects-drenched guitars desperately squealing in search of purpose.
Ironically, some of the best moments here are the most relaxed: “(I’ve Got the Power)”, both funky and instrumentally dense, leafs through riffs and hooks like pages in a phone book. “Torrid Sex in East Berlin”, previously released as a limited edition seven inch, is similarly funky, featuring wah-wah riffing a Hendrix fan could love.
The press is treating Contoured Heat as not only the band’s opus, but also its swan song. Following a Pennsylvania gig in 2009, the band experienced a life-altering event in the form of a horrendous van crash, which shook the trio to its core. They all walked away from the accident relatively unscathed, but besides damaging some gear and their mode of transportation, the incident seems to have left some professional scarring. Contoured Heat was temporarily shelved, and the band went on hiatus.
By perusing the Mass Shivers website, things appear to be looking up (any performance on a Chicago children’s show suggests things aren’t too dour). But if Contoured Heat does turn out to be their last release, both band and listeners should be satisfied with a work of such passion, a collection of songs that leaves the mark of a band giving 100 percent.
Problem is, this time around, “100 percent” of their efforts is only worth 60 percent of yours.