Goodbye, guitars. Hello, electronics.
The Mast were one of 2011’s unsung superstars-who-should-have-been, a Brooklyn-based duo whose outstanding album Wild Poppies was a breakout hit that never happened. Built around the breathy, ethereal vocals of Haale and the endlessly varied percussion of Matt Kilmer, the album contained a strong set of songs that benefited from Haale’s voice and expressive guitar playing. In a musical landscape growing cluttered with two-piece outfits (including the likes of the Pack AD, Little Hurricane, and Aina Haina as well as the more obvious White Stripes, Black Keys, and Viva Voce), The Mast had hit upon a sound that allowed them to stand out.
Alas, apparently they didn’t think so. Who know whether the pair were dissatisfied with their sound or with the audience response to it. In any case, follow up album Pleasure Island follows a radically different path. Gone are the hand drums, so too the guitar. What’s left is Haale’s voice, lovely as ever, and a dense wash of electronica. Kilmer has traded in his physical instrumentation for an array of jittering electronic beats, gurgles, bleeps, and synth sounds. He is a skillful musician -- they both are -- so this is far from a disaster, but it's also very far from where we last heard the band.
Opener “Luxor” wisely avoids trying to do too much, allowing Haale’s vocal to carry the tune while the accompanying electronic sounds surround her without overwhelming. Follow-up tune "Raining Down" applies synth washes with a somewhat heavier hand, adding plenty of processing to the vocals as well, with mixed results. Both these songs fall somewhere between mid-tempo and a bit quicker than that, but this is far from dance music, as the beats are not insistent enough. This is a good thing.
The album checks in at 14 songs, which perhaps suggests that Haale and Kilmer weren’t quite sure what to include and what to cut. Despite the impressive sonic variety on display, the songs are not all equally engaging, as on “Breathless We Go” and “Temptation”, where Kilmer’s knob-tiddling comes off sounding generic. More successful are the weird fuzz-bursts of “Voices”, which complement Haale’s ghostly singing perfectly. Also effective are the snaky, almost wah-wah-like gurgles underpinning “UpUpUp”, a tune that sounds like an incantation to some higher power. (Or maybe that’s just me. Who knows.)
The album ends strongly. “Emerald” is a lovely tune with the electronic drumbeats dialed back a bit in service to Haale’s vocal rather than in competition with it, while “Seas Across Your Mind” offers up a different sonic palette (is that a guitar? And an accordion? I can’t tell, but man, I really hope so) and a swooping, swaying bass line. It’s a solid ending for an album whose restlessness and exploration has taken the listener to a whole range of different sounds already.
It’s always tough when a favorite band messes with their formula – I’m probably one of the few people who ran out to buy The Clash’s London Calling the day it was released, and thought it was utter shit compared to their first two records. (Still do.) Happily, the experiments done by The Mast on their sophomore album are far less painful than that, though every bit as unexpected. This is a band that deserve a far wider audience than they have yet reached. Maybe this is the album that will bring it.