[5 May 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The debut album from Britain’s Mazes, A Thousand Heys, was likely one of the year’s most anticipated records to come out, just judging from the buzz in the blogosphere. The band’s output of seven-inches, split singles and cassettes all seemed to hint that Mazes could be something worth talking about. However, it turns out that A Thousand Heys has already been picked apart to death upon its release by web writers, and the general consensus among these reviewers, aside from a handful that appeared to generally like it, is that the album is pretty much just merely OK. Thus, I’m pretty much coming a bit late to the critical drubbing (and maybe that’s too harsh a word to describe something that’s mediocre), but I have to admit that the glut of reviews pretty much bolster my opinion of the record. A Thousand Heys is a bit of a buzz kill: while it does boast some glorious fuzzed-out melodies and is concise in its distillation of punky indie rock, there’s just something about the record that misses the mark.
The good and the bad points of A Thousand Heys can be observed right in the album’s opening salvo “Go Betweens”. Yes, Mazes seems to be referencing the ‘80s indie rock darlings of the same name, the group responsible for bringing the elegiac “Streets of Your Town” into the world. That would point to the fact that the foursome that comprises Mazes is interested in showing off their collective record collections. That’s both an asset and liability. While the guys in Mazes obviously have a pretty good taste in music, you do get the sense however as you listen to A Thousand Heys that there’s no depth to the records they own, that they have nothing pre-dating maybe 1985 or so as a reference point, maybe excepting the song “Wait Anyway” which sounds like the Stooges fused with the heavy riffage of Black Sabbath. This quality of a lack of profundity is very evident in the aforementioned “Go Betweens”. It’s a jaunty song with a streamlined chorus that makes you want to sing along, but it does feel like it could have been lifted from, say, Sebadoh circa Harmacy, which really wasn’t all that long ago. The song also raises another flaw of the band: “Go Betweens” only clocks in at two minutes on the nose. In fact, it just expends all of its energy and then stops on a dime, before plunging headlong into the next track, “Surf & Turf / Maths Tag”, which is a very Pavement-y sounding song title if there was one.
The spectrum of Pavement does loom pretty large over the course of A Thousand Heys. “Boxing Clever”, in particular, is practically a Pavement tune, right down to the disaffected slurred vocals that blatantly recall Stephen Malkmus. “Boxing Clever” just comes too close to sounding like a rip off to really take on a life of its own. What’s more, since it is such a carbon copy of the ramshackle and beloved ‘90s indie band, the song kind of interrupts the brash flow of edgy and vital songs that abound throughout the course of the album. And that’s not all. The overall ragged sound of A Thousand Heys brings to mind another current British group, Male Bonding, though Mazes are not as harsh on the ears as that band. It just makes you wonder if Mazes are trying to be hip scenesters, taking in various cultural reference points that might make them look cool. The resemblance to other, and some might argue better bands, becomes a bit annoying after awhile, especially considering that a great deal of the material to be found on A Thousand Heys just feels tossed off, with many of these songs barely scraping the two minute mark, if that. In particular, the one-two punch that comes more than mid-way through the album, “Vampire Jive” and “Eva”, are a minute long and nearly 30 seconds in length, respectively. I’m reminded of the heckle by the fictitious Wallace Wells to the equally fictitious Crash and the Boys as the latter play live at a bar in both the Scott Pilgrim movie and graphic novel series: “It’s not a race, guys”. I realize that Mazes are shooting for a punk vitality, but these two songs in particular just feel unfinished, which is a shame considering there are areas of A Thousand Heys that appear to have been worked on and refined.
Indeed, despite its obvious pain-points, there are signs that the band had a knack for a good tune throughout A Thousand Heys, which makes its weaknesses seem all the more frustrating. “Surf & Turf / Maths Tag” features a boisterous slacker-esque melody and a memorable opening line in “I get off trains and wave like Beatles at JFK”. The song, too, sounds like any run-of-the-mill ‘90s indie rock band, but there’s a sense of craft found here that travels straight to your cranium and lodges itself deep. The following track, “Most Days”, recalls the humming surf rock of Wavves, which might at first blush feel like a burden, but Mazes surpasses the work of that group in its crisp production and crunchy guitars that chime like there’s no tomorrow. What’s likely the best song on the record comes after that in the form of “Bowie Knives”, which is a laid-back piece of jangle pop that is breezy and effervescent. “Summer Hits or J + J Don’t Like” is another catchy tune that has an R.E.M.-like clang to it, just infused with some punkiness to give it a particular shot in the arm. It, however, does run out of gas fairly quickly, as it just quits before the two-minute mark. Further down the line-up, “Death House” offers up some good old fashioned guitar riffs, but is deflated by a false ending that comes about mid-way through the track.
Overall, A Thousand Heys is not really a bad album, per se, but it just feels ordinary somehow. The tossed-off nature of a great deal of the songs that punctuate the album are a distraction, and it seems like the record, clocking in at about 30 minutes, is bolstered by the presence of a great deal of short and to-the-point filler to just pad it out to a respectable length, and that’s when the group isn’t deliberately lifting from slightly retro influences to provide definition to its own sound. Additionally, the album feels a bit front loaded, which only goes to strengthen the feeling that much of A Thousand Heys is mere padding. The long and short of it is that A Thousand Heys is a pleasant enough record, though it could have been a real contender if only maybe more care and attention had been given to sculpting a sound that is genuinely something Mazes could call their own. There are hints and glimmers of this, particularly on “Bowie Knives”, but the record doesn’t really feel all that memorable as a whole. When vocalist/guitarist Jack Cooper sings on “No Way” that “I never want to get out of bed, no way”, it speaks volumes to the overall conception of slackerdom that permeates this record. It’s as though Mazes don’t take their own shtick very seriously. Which begs the question: why should we?