Ethereal vocals and relentless percussion makes for a unique sound.
The Mast is a Brooklyn-based duo consisting of Haale on guitar/vocals and Matt Kilmer on various forms of percussion (including frame drums, tom toms, and djembes). Despite the flourishing of two-piece bands over the past ten years — Viva Voce is an obvious point of comparison — The Mast has managed to forge a sound of their own. In part, this is because of Haale's ethereal but sinewy voice, and in part it's because the band's arrangements and melodies evoke world music traditions, particularly those of the Middle East. These influences are suggested throughout the band's debut CD, Wild Poppies, a record as compelling as it is beautiful.
Opener "Wild Poppies" sets the bar high: as Haale sings harmony with herself, Kilmer's polyrhythms create a storm-tossed bed that propels the song irresistibly but never treatens to overwhelm it. Midway through, Haale's restrained performance gives way to a soulful keening, and the intensity ramps up a notch. It's never strident, but it is, in its own quiet way, ferocious. It's also a heck of a first song, and a challenge to the rest of the record.
Most of what follows is up to the challenge, with only occasional lulls. "Trump" features a surprisingly sinister guitar sound and a variety of crash cymbals which seem to portend a disaster of an unspecified sort. "Prize" chugs along as a quietly scorching midtempo rocker, while "EOA" once again makes good use of Haale's Sinead-O'Connor-meets-Margo-Timmins vocals — even if I don't know what the heck “EOA” is supposed to mean.
This isn't to say that every tune here is perfect. "Definitions" is a bit of a throwaway song with a repetitive chorus, while "My All" slogs rather than soars. But these are minor quibbles compared to the whole of the record, which flows seamlessly from tune to tune, managing to be dreamy and energetic at the same time.
The back half of the album retains the energy and inventiveness of the first half, with "The Lake" offering a tasty melody, lively arrangements, and, of course, Kilmer’s relentless percussion. "Hummingbird" might feature some of Haale's most soaring vocals yet — quite a statement, considering — to go with a muscular, fuzzed-out guitar line. "Lucid Dream" closes out the album with a stop-and-start rhythm and the enigmatic line, "I go everywhere in this empire/I go everywhere; I go higher."
The nine songs here run in the three-to-four minute range — the first song is the longest, at 4:01 — so the record is relatively short. It would be nice to see the pair stretching themselves a bit on some longer jams. Certainly Haale's got the guitar chops for it, and Kilmer's energy appears boundless.
One thing that set the pair head and shoulders above many of their would-be-pop-star bretheren is their songcraft. Haale not only knows how to sing, but she knows how to craft a tune, and Kilmer seems unwilling to play the same rhythmic pattern twice. As a result, the songs are differentiated enough to avoid sounding the same, and they get stuck in the listener's mind for days. This can only be a good thing.