There's something about instrumental rock music that makes the music slippery, hard to get a hold of. It's purely about sound, with none of the window-dressing that lyrics add to guide the listener into the experience. Sure, all music, even that of the vocal variety, is about sound, and it doesn't matter how good an artist is with a pen, you have to have the musical chops to back it up in order to be successful. But instrumental rock is a soundscape unlike any other. It retains all the affect and energy of rock music, but it's open to experience and interpretation. And it makes you think very plainly of that sample line from Big Audio Dynamite II's song "Rush": "The only important things these days are rhythm and melody".
For a band like Maserati, a four-piece instrumental outfit from Athens, Georgia, these are the key ingredients. And they occur in that order. Perhaps it's the lack of vocals to distract from the true meat of the music, but in the atmospheric swirl of guitars and repetitious melodies, the rhythms of these songs stand out almost as their most enduring feature. Phil Horan's drums come through as the center, the backbone exposed, as the rolls and fills set the pace. While the guitars chime out distinctly, Steve Scarborough's bass is almost naked, a humming and rich sound that only rarely takes the backseat to the usually-more-front-and-center lead and rhythm guitars of other acts.
Of course, the melodies are critical, and it's not that Coley Dennis or Matt Cherry don't hold attention or focus. Rather, it's that it's easier to distinguish each piece of the whole, and to let one's ear pay close attention to each element individually. And the melodies created on The Language of Cities are sometimes sublime, sometimes driving. Maserati can play with the calm of a gray autumn sky, or with the force of a storm, and the melodies of these songs guide both of these moods.
If you want some kind of comparison to try and figure out what it all sounds like, think about what that average emo sound would be like without the whiny vocals. The guitars are generally chiming, sometimes overtop a low-level smear of distortion, and the shimmering effect over the driving rhythms set up the familiar sound of indie rock melancholia. But there's more variety here. The opening track, "Ambassador of Cinema", is marked more by its large open spaces, and the quiet between notes, than it is by rock fury. More mainstream rock guitar winds its way in as well, as Dennis and Cherry reveal their professed influence from guitarists like the Edge (U2), particularly on "Cities". Then there's "A Common Interest in Silence", which builds mainly on a soft and languid piano line.
However, like much instrumental music, the tracks here are marked with a heavy emphasis on repetition. Sometimes that works, as on "The Language", where the repetition gives the airy nature of the track a certain menace and relentlessness, but other times this same repetition is almost maddening. The other failing of these tracks as compositions comes in Maserati's tendency to rely on a slow build-up of tension, pace and intensity. There's almost something sexual to these songs, starting from a slow and careful movement until they swell and then burst into a long, and often chaotic climax. It works great in the confines of one song, but on a collection of like-minded tracks, it becomes to become a roller-coaster, inducing a sort of exhausting sea-sickness. Perhaps for that reason, the pieces that are immediately louder and more aggressive ("Keep It Gold" and "Being a President Is Like Riding a Tiger") are the welcome release, and seem to work the best.
Regardless, Maserati has created a collection of instrumental rock songs that carry their own sort of austere beauty and never fail to convey a mood. The melancholy, and occasional fury, of these songs is palpable without the accoutrements of words. If you're looking for a companion to a chilly day or a dour mood, these songs will have immediate appeal. And if you're looking to throw another instrumental rock album into your collection next to Tortoise and Trans-Am, Maserati will fit right in.