Quatre Tête (singer/guitarist Mark Bartak, bassist Becka Joynt, and a rotating cast of drummers) really, really want you to know they’re from Chicago. See that buff cover art? Chicago-based poster artist and Dianogah member Jay Ryan drew it. They lassoed Shellac bassist and gilded math-rock engineer Bob Weston to do a little something-something behind the boards. But it’s the music itself that speaks loudest about their affiliations: atypical arrangements, chunky riffage without overdubs, and the employment of every tempo that can be played on a drum except 4/4. The bands they share a common space with (Uzeda, Daughters, Young Widows) are not Chicagoan, though they try for an abrasive yet convoluted Chicago ideal promulgated by Shellac and the Jesus Lizard—groups whose members used their smarts to become smartasses in a style that most in the Windy City will probably recognize.
Put two and two together and you’ll quickly figure out that Quatre Tête really, really want you to think of them as the recipients of Steve Albini’s torch. And on paper, they are: they switch time signatures on a dime, the lean instrumentation references Albini and Weston’s handiwork in Shellac, and to hear Mark Bartak’s sing/scream hybrid is to see a sugarplum vision of post-hardcore in 1992. (He sounds like a cross between Drive Like Jehu’s Rick Froberg and Refused’s Dennis Lyxzén.) The group’s posturing even makes them look a bit snide, with song titles like “Let’s Steal a Car” and “You’re a Dumb Boom Box”, although I bet they’re really nice. But something’s been lost in the translation, because Art of the State is way, way, way too tame for its aspirations. It’s as if the crack of the drums and the scrape of the guitars have been discarded during the mastering process in the event that they might offend someone.
Lest we forget, Chicago’s history is littered with bands that made complexity sound tremendously predictable, especially after the dust over math-rock’s cliché-busting reputation had settled. Quatre Tête might resemble their influences, but in so doing they’ve treated Chicago post-hardcore as an exercise that can now be safely boiled down to a science. As a result, the shifts in the music carry no surprise; it is as if, by the end of a given song, all we’ll have experienced is the fact that the song has changed a certain number of times. Where’s the fun in that? Art of the State reveals a band with skilled musicianship and a command of the techniques that place them neatly within their regional tradition. But whether or not they possess the F-U disposition of Steve Albini or David Yow, that crucial helping of piss and vinegar (soul, in other words) is in far too short supply for Quatre Tête to be competitive in an overcrowded market.