Noel Heroux crafts a genre-blending record of infectious creativity in debut as Mass Gothic.
In the lead up to Mass Gothic’s release, project architect Noel Heroux was quoted saying he felt uninspired and frustrated. His decade with Hooray For Earth ended in 2014, Heroux’s creative juices drained. To read his statements, you’d think Heroux was down for the count. And yet, the artistic drive hadn’t dwindled entirely, and Heroux started over with Mass Gothic. The resulting album could have been a dying ember of a has-been. Thankfully, it is a genuine resurgence of imaginative energy and ideas, the endeavor serving as both the vehicle for and the fruition of his rebirth.
Mass Gothic is the spark that rekindled Heroux’s skill as a master songsmith, and that fire sears through the record’s ten tracks. It’s romantic and yearning, bitter and wounded, gratifying and cathartic. There is the unflinching honesty of confession, but it avoids being mopey. The songs themselves are constructed like meager shacks initially, before emerging as monolithic aural cathedrals. Most of them are built upon a foundation of airy synths, then build into a fusillade of scathing guitars and harsh electronic blasts. It’s shimmering and grimy in equal doses, a smooth ride often interrupted by an avalanche of grit to keep you on your toes. On the downside, Heroux’s adhering to this formula means it can get formulaic, and thus the grand dramatic impact the songs go far is increasingly diminished as you descend the tracklist. The eye of the hurricane in all of this is Heroux’s melodious voice, which mimics the musical pattern in its tendency to devolve into unhinged snarling and yowling.
With an auteur’s eye (or ear in this case), Heroux piles on the layers of sound. In the process, he eschews genre trappings. What could have been a simple synth pop record incorporate guitar-based power pop and a DIY, punk aesthetic in its edge. Opening track “Mind is Probably” showcases all of this. Heroux heaps on more and more levels of quirky flourishes (sampled street sounds, crackling background imperfections, looped percussive elements) as it goes on. Remarkably, as it builds into a squall, it doesn’t lose its ability to enthrall. A barrage of cacophony is anchored by lyrical repetition, allowing the tune to retain a hook in the fray. Successor “Own the Road”, at barely more than a minute long, is a trance-like palate cleanser. It stands as a demarcation between “Mind Is Probably” and the sweeping opulence of “Want to, Bad”. Amid a plinking of silvery electronics and understated percussion, it calls to mind M83 or Berlin-era David Bowie. In the chorus, Heroux relinquishes vocal duties to wife Jessica Zambri. “I want to / I want to bad," Zambri sings like a woman overcome while Heroux hangs back, conjuring guitar feedback. Come the end, the guitar takes over in a whirling conflagration before trailing off as though it’s consumed all the oxygen that fueled it.
“Pier Pressure” is comparatively staid, at least at the start. A wall of hazy synths evoke images of Heroux standing alone on a jetty some foggy morning, contemplating mortality as he sings, “I wait in the ocean / Dissolving." A groovy drum beat comes in after this austere intro, later joined by a pulsating bassline and flickering keys. “Nice Night” changes things up again, defined by a throbbing, grunge guitar riff and a dirge-like vibe. A meditation on loneliness, the dourness is at once offset and complimented by Heroux’s lilting vocals. “Unscrew my head then / Every thing lasts for way too long / Easy, now," he sings like a person who’s locked himself in a room and is just waiting for the departed object of his affection to return. Near the end, the drums thumping more and more intensely, the vocals erupt into serrated screams of broken tension before a tidewater of bleeps ushers it all away.
The second side of the LP is launched by its most jubilant and unabashed pop number. How “Every Night You’ve Got to Save Me” avoids being saccharine is a mystery. Feminine “hooh, hoohs” pepper the tune. The start-stop drums are tailor-made to get you dancing. The refrain of the title being sung over and over is shamelessly catchy. And yet, somehow, it doesn’t overplay its hand or seem a desperate ploy. Reminiscent of the Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”, it’s an ebullient declaration of devotion to and need for, presumably, Zambri. The minor “Money Counter” arrives after and is ethereal in a restrained-industrial kind of way. The record begins to trail off from there. “Territory” finds Heroux singing over a techno loop while “Soul” is another sludgy number of fuzzy guitar. Oddly though, the atmosphere in the latter is about the only one in the bunch that lives up to the project’s “gothic” namesake. Closer “Subway Phone” would be effecting even if it were only an instrumental. It has that feel of emerging from a dark night into a bright new dawn, a sense of closure that is perfectly serviced by its 2:22 length and abrupt ending.
Exempting a little predictability and some late-in-the-game tapering off, Mass Gothic is a stunning and invigorating record. Listening to it, you’re dumbfounded on how the mind that created it could have ever felt worn out or spent of talent. While it takes time and numerous listens to reveal its rewards, halfway through your third spin, you'll already be desirous for your fourth.