Mathlete’s Telstar Parthenon. Dear God, what a willfully frustrating recording.
When I was in high school in the late ‘80s, one of the counselors brought a synthesizer, tape deck, and drum machine from home and set up a miniature, primitive recording studio in one of the classroom closets. I used to spend literally hours there after school, committing musical experiments to tape. I still have some of those recordings. Depeche Mode had nothing to worry about (Well, yes they did—Depeche Mode always had something to worry about, just listen to their lyrics—but not me, is what I’m saying). If it wasn’t long, deep low synthesizer notes like something out of a cheap horror movie, it was attempts to emulate the then-current output of techno-pop groups like Information Society and New Order. I didn’t try any vocals at the time—among other things, the “studio” had no mike—those would come later, but that’s another story. In short, it was what writer Ira Robbins has called the noise of a boy with toys.
Mathlete’s Telstar Parthenon sounds like something I would have cooked up in those bygone days. A procession of 20 unabashedly retro, low-tech hi-tech songs from which “Coat of arms,” “(I don’t wanna) technical direct,” “Memorial Hill,” and “Chromakey me” stand out. It’s a collection that I have to admit, almost begrudgingly, is going to be staying in my musical library for reasons of nostalgia if nothing else. Any duo that promotes itself by comparison to early OMD and other ‘80s new wave is preaching to the converted as far as I’m concerned, and the tunes are crisply played and programmed. Mathlete breaks no particular new ground here, but nor do I think they care to. The collection is a release of creative energy from two guys who like to tap their fingers on drum machine buttons and press on keys to see what sounds they make. The two guys are Mike Downey, who also plays with a band called Wolfie, which I haven’t heard, and Dan Marsden. Downey plays guitar, Marsden has the Rhythm Ace, and both sing and play synth.
So why “begrudgingly?” Messrs. Downey and Marsden, if I may make so bold: Hire a singer who is more comfortable than the two of you seem to be with your voices (Kim Kleinfeldt, who sings on two songs here, would be my suggestion). Or find an engineer or producer who can do something with your vocals except bury them in the mix and record every single one of them through the same filter. The one that makes it sound as though your voices are being recorded from underwater. After listening to your album more than five times the words of only a few of your songs have stuck in my head, largely because I can’t make them out.
The vocals on New Order’s first album were pretty wretchedly hopeless, and Bernard Sumner grew into one of the most expressive and emotional singers techno-pop has. Not because he surpassed his technical shortcomings but because with increased experience his voice became the imperfect human element against his bands polished sonic sheen perfection. It’s entirely possible that in a handful of years the songs from this album will sound the way New Order’s earliest singles do. More of interest historically than fully realized and enjoyable, but intriguing because you can hear the seeds of their later work in them.
Mathlete sound like a promise that I’d like to see kept. If nothing else, they ought to give hope to whoever is playing that old-when-I-was-playing-it synth and clapped-out drum machine back at my old high school.