As far as I can tell, there are three ways to approach Mute Math. The first approach is to get lost in the New Orleans modern-rock band’s dense compositional textures and innovative, multifaceted production; this approach involves being flat-out impressed with what they’re doing, generally speaking. The second approach is to brush aside all of this furious detail as being so much overproduced gloss, and point a critical finger or two at lead singer Paul Meany’s humdrum melodies, platitudinal lyrics, and radio-friendly warbling. The third and most simple approach is to affix to them the dreaded dismissive label of “Christian rock” and walk away.
I think we can feel justified in safely tossing out the third option. Mute Math sued Warner Music Group to prevent the label from releasing the band’s eponymous debut album on its Christian music imprint, after all. It’s pretty clear that, whatever their faith-based leanings, Meany and his bandmates don’t want to be considered a Christian band; the total dearth of openly religious lyrical content is another clue, of course. What we’re left with, then, is an endless thumb-war between the other two approaches. Most listeners will therefore emerge from Mute Math’s sophomore effort, Armistice, with bruised cuticles and perhaps with less conviction about the band than they came in with, one way or another.
Proponents of the first approach (in whose company I tentatively place myself) will find plenty of justification for their views. The spectrum of colors in Mute Math’s sonic palette spills into the kaleidoscopic. Rooted time and again in drummer Darren King’s electronically-assisted breakbeats, these songs are dizzying tapestries of appealing noise. Processed riffs spiral ascendantly around unforgiving rhythms and vocal melismas in the midst of lead single “Spotlight”. The toms and handclaps that collaborate in building a beat for “Odds” are striking. “Pins and Needles” gamely approximates a Thom Yorke solo b-side with haunting piano whispers and skittering machine beats. The album’s title track surfs on wildly inspired goodtime horns before breaking down with unsettling sci-fi strings. “Clipping” is an absolutely stunning piece of production (and not such a bad song, either). At its best, Armistice reproduces the frantic invention on display during a Mute Math live show, an experience that is both rousing and bewildering.
Still, acolytes of the second approach I mentioned above will hardly be silenced. Meany’s lyrics almost never dig their claws into you, and his Sting-like crooning seeks to flatten his band’s spiky gridscape of sounds. Mute Math has all the tools to grab post-rock by the throat, but Meany is always there with his shiny anthemics to pull these sonic Rube Goldberg devices back to a more structured and accessible locus. Devotees obviously appreciate the inherent tension this creates, and Mute Math’s work is nothing if not tensile (indeed, sometimes almost unbearably so).
Still, there are instances that see Meany’s pied piper impulses leading his flock astray: “The Nerve” gets its kicks from empty lyrical nihilism, “Lost Year” is a dullish piano ballad, and the dance-rock of “Electrify” sports a goofy melody and Meany’s unconvincing mania for a girl. And on the rare occasions upon which Mute Math allows you to poke your head out from their ocean of noise for a quick breather, you may just take the moment to recognize the similarity between the guitar tones and to realize that you’re getting heartily sick of all of those damned hi-hats.
Ultimately, Mute Math forces you to pick your side. I’ve chosen mine, and am diverted enough by the embarrassment of aural riches that Armistice has on display to offer up a solid recommendation. But even a supporter has to admit recognition of the hitches in the band’s mostly-confident gait, and can hardly begrudge the perspective of those for whom these foibles are overwhelming. Enjoying Mute Math involves disavowing the bad, and disliking them likewise involves disavowing the good. That this choice is offered at all keeps the band firmly in the camp of the interesting, at least.