"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]