At times thrilling, at times frustrating, Edit Peptide contains the highs and lows of highly technical math and prog rock all in one package.
Bubblemath released their debut album in 2002, and it took them 15 years to release another one. The story of why it took them so long is a vague one, at least as the band tells it, but there was a long series of setbacks along the way. Delays aside, Edit Peptide is a dense album filled with musical twists and turns. This is math-rock with big doses of classic progressive rock and occasional forays into more melodic material. The songs shift tempos and time signatures all over the place, making for a compelling if a bit herky-jerky, listening experience.
The album begins with its longest track, the chaotic “Routine Maintenance". The piece starts with crashing start-stop guitar chords before sliding briefly into smoother, piano-dominated moments of lightness. These lighter moments are quickly subsumed in the heavier, time-changing swirl of chords and complicated rhythm patterns. Eventually, the song calms down enough for a flute solo and vocalist Jonathan G. Smith’s solid falsetto singing. From here, Bubblemath gradually lets the song build back up in volume, style, and tempo, as bassist Jay Burritt pushes the band with his constant eighth notes. This is quite effective, and it leads nicely into the following section, an intricate showcase for the band’s chops. As the song shifts towards its end, the track’s falsetto melody resurfaces, followed by a piano feature, a quick reappearance of the flute, and a chunky but brief false ending. That is followed by an even shorter restatement of the song’s crashing start-stop opening.
There’s a lot to unpack there. “Routine Maintenance” isn’t a catchy work by any means, but sections of it are fascinating musically, and the band does an excellent job of transitioning between styles without getting bogged down for too long in guitar heroics or technical showcases. It also has strong enough melodies and riffs, both in its pretty and heavy sections, to stick with the listener and be easily identifiable when they show up again eight to ten minutes later. It’s a challenging but rewarding listen. The rest of Edit Peptide only works this well in fits and starts.
Second song “Avoid That Eye Candy” is the album’s shortest at less than four minutes. It’s also nominally pop-oriented, which ends up showing Bubblemath’s shortcomings at this style immediately. There’s a solid vocal melody going through the song, but it doesn’t have a chorus. The lyrics are a cynical, sarcastic indictment of the advertising and fashion industries and their obsession with body image. Accordingly, Smith’s vocals are delivered in a nasal sneer. But since the band changes the riffs, rhythms, and even the musical style every few seconds throughout the song, that nasal sneer does the melody no favors. The whole thing ends up feeling ugly and weird, which may be the point. But that undermines the sarcasm, which would’ve benefitted from much smoother vocals and more stable backing music.
Other songs on Edit Peptide demonstrate how vital a strong riff, melody, or groove can be to a listener’s equilibrium. “Perpetual Notion” is seven minutes of technically impressive ensemble playing without a single memorable moment, because it has no riffs, melodies, or grooves for the listener to hang onto. “Making Light of Traffic” has the same issues. “Damn, there’s some excellent, complex drum and bass work going on here”, I think as I listen to the song. The organ and saxophone stuff later on in the track is a nice nod to ‘70s rock. But the one recurring melody isn’t particularly memorable, and there’s nothing else there that really grabs the ear. So once the song stops playing, I can’t recall a second of it.
“Get a Lawn” has a completely different issue. It’s a six-minute song based around a mildly amusing wordplay gag that absolutely cannot support six minutes of repetition. But there’s Bubblemath, writing a whole song of suburb and grass puns, anchored by “Can’t we all just get a lawn?” This is followed closely and just as many times by the slightly weaker gag, “No! / We’re not gonna take any mow!” So “Get a Lawn” has a real chorus, but it’s a chorus that becomes more aggravating every time it’s repeated. Oops.
Fortunately, there is a pair of other highlights that make listening to the rest of Edit Peptide after “Routine Maintenance” worthwhile. “A Void I Can Depart To” is a soaring, 10-minute track with the album’s best vocal performance and the band is musically locked into the song’s initial melody. The music jukes and changes as much as the rest of the tracks on the album, but the band always returns to the main melody. Sometimes it’s there in the vocals, sometimes it’s in the guitar or keyboards, but there’s a focus there that greatly benefits the song. This track even has a pseudo death metal section, complete with growling vocals, and it still keeps working. There’s also a weird, staccato section that deconstructs the melody into just its skeleton, but that melody never stops being recognizable.
Closer “The Sensual Con” has a pair of similarly strong melodies. It’s a harsher song that recalls ‘90s weirdos Mr. Bungle and their penchant for instant mood and style shifts. But it hangs together better than some of the album’s other tracks by focusing on its melodies and not spinning out into completely unrelated technical explorations. This track’s technical explorations stay grounded in that pair of melodies and give the listener something to connect with.
Edit Peptide is the kind of album that will hook some listeners (my PopMatters’ colleague Jedd Beaudoin had nothing but glowing things to say when we premiered the album stream back in May), but it’s not for everybody. It’s not even for everybody that’s into prog and math rock. I found it to be frustratingly inconsistent. The three strong tracks here are really excellent examples of how cool highly technical rock music can be, but the rest of the album demonstrates how annoying it can be. Folks who are already into highly technical rock are invited to check out Edit Peptide for themselves; maybe more of it will click for you than it did for me.