Mahjongg run with an elaborate mythology, but what they really care about is taking a groove and spotlighting its strangeness.
Mahjongg come wearing masks, bearing cryptograms. The cover of their second album resembles code, or those flags that represent secret signals. On the cover, the band name has a series of symbols underneath, which might be the album title spelled out in a Wingdings-style font, except that the inside cover tells us the title is Kontpab, and there’s too many symbols. “Kontpab” sounded to me like a spy organization, a wartime acronym, maybe. But Google returns only references to this album, so it’s clearly another part of the band’s fiction, part of the persona of mystery they’ve created, like Sun Ra or the Residents. The label, K Records, explains on their website that Kontpab is the deity the band worships. It spins an elaborate tale that ultimately winds its way towards the form their worship takes: musical improvisation.
Much of the publicity information on the band tries to keep that mythology going, with the band members providing names that resemble those of participants in some ancient sun-worshipping cult. But it doesn’t take that much work to see that they’re actually a bunch of guys from the Midwest, currently living in Chicago. They’re real people, not characters from a science-fiction novel. They’re just a gang of musicians who love to get together and perform their own riff on the music that inspires them. It’s funk and rock and Fela Kuti albums they cherish, not some made-up deity.
The music on Kontpab is leaner than on their debut full-length, 2005’s Raydoncong. It’s still weird, but mostly about rhythm, in a more direct way than on the first album. Kontpab is about using groove to get to the ineffable side of life, about rhythm bringing its own set of mysteries. Mahjongg’s music generally sets obscured lyrics over post-punk/funk with some early ‘80s new wave leanings, synthesizer messing-around, and the occasional pop/rock hook. But it all starts with the drums. The opening track, “Pontiac”, starts with primitive, dare I say “tribal” drums. They’re pounding away methodically, but picking up more sounds, even voices, as they go, adding to the mood while retaining the basic drive. The next track, “Problems”, has a more proper verse/chorus set-up. But again the groove is the thing, and the vocals are really just in service to that. They get into a litany of repetition. These are not affected “tribal” chants, no Disney’s Jungleland adventure, but they do go for some of those same qualities of cadence and repetition associated with that imagined chant of worship. They play their instruments along that same line of thought, like they’re joining together to raise the dead or chase away demons. Other tracks throw in laser-beam sounds or other unidentifables, building an aura of strangeness around even a straight-up drum attack or synth-led funk jam.
“Those Birds Are Bats” is the pop/rock single here, but still fuzzy, purposely obscuring and weird. They jam on that synth, with drums further back. “Wipe Out” similarly buries the vocals somewhat, using them as complement to the main event: a choppy synthesizer. On “Mercury”, some of the vocals are clearer, but one hazy falsetto vocal isn’t. And the lyrics aren’t clearer, either…something about mercury getting into his brain.
Kontpab ends with the spooky jam/anthem “Rise Rice”. The jam cuts off completely suddenly at the end, but after a serious rush forward. That rush is appropriate to their whole mission. They shoot us into space, across the jungle, down the ghost-filled streets of Chicago, and then leave us to fend for ourselves, to figure out what this all even means.