Musical noise potion
by Stephanie Kadel-Taras
"I knew something like this would happen when their parents started listening to Devo." This was my companion's comment at a recent performance by Ann Arbor's Mason Proper. Only some of the music of these young men from northern Michigan is reminiscent of the 1980s geek-punk they might have heard in the crib. But they carry on a Devoesque tradition of refusing to play by the rules while making highly structured pop-rock music. The result is something decidedly twenty-first century and way cool.
Describing it to you is another matter. No
two songs on their thirteen-track debut CD, There Is a Moth in Your Chest, sound similar. You get dreamy singing and quiet guitar, followed by a space-age pointillistic chant, then an upbeat dance tune, then head-banging kraut rock that ends in a fury of blown fuses. Even within each song, they keep you guessing, with tempo changes, sudden stops, and gradual layering that transforms vocalist Jon Visger's sweet and simple melodies into a dense cacophony in under four minutes.
The instrumentation is mostly familiar guitar (Brian Konicek), bass (Pat Stafford), drums (Chris Aben), tight harmonies but it also includes what the band describes as "mad science" played by Matt Thomson. This DIY ("do it yourself") noise sends manipulated feedback and other sound effects through a keyboard or microphone to create eerie, bubbling, scratching, whistling, circus noises that take each piece into a new space and time. Indeed, "mad science" is an apt description.
Mason Proper seems to be following a trend in young local bands. Artist Actual Birds (aka Dustin Krcatovich) and his band the High Spirits, whom I saw at the same benefit show, also use electronic and analog noise. In both bands the addition of sculpted noise to musical compositions can result in a wide range of moods, including humor, otherworldly beauty, and dark, throbbing ugliness that leaves you begging for a pretty piano solo. It also makes lyrics hard to
tease out, so I can't tell you what Mason Proper is singing about.
Live shows need to be carefully mixed to keep these sounds from bleeding together into a pulsing mess. When I saw Mason Proper, the mix was too loud for a full appreciation of the music's complexity, though the crowd of fans didn't seem to mind. Some were even dancing not easy to do to songs that specifically avoid setting down a groove.
Mason Proper doesn't lack for energy in its performances, though. On a small stage, the band members risk crashing into each other in their wild abandon. As mad scientists go, they're definitely more Hyde than Jekyll, and worth a venture into their laboratory.
Mason Proper is at the Blind Pig on Friday, August 18.
[Review published August 2006]