Sunday, September 2, 2012

Mystery Machine - Western Magnetics

Western Magnetics has been a LONG time coming. And by that, I don’t exactly mean that it’s the perfect album that I’ve been waiting for all of my life – I mean it quite literally, as Vancouver shoegazers Mystery Machine have been working on it since 1999.

For those who may not be familiar with the group, they started out in 1990, and released 3 albums from then until 1998, up until going on hiatus. Now, they’re finally back with Western Magnetics, 10 tracks of gloriously exuberant, shoegazey goodness that practically beg to be heard live. But the real question is, after so long out of the game, do they still have what it takes to be relevant? The answer is, quite simply, HELL YEAH.

Opener “Pronto” is, quite simply, one of the most jubilant, life-affirmingly noisy pieces of dreamy shoegaze-rock I have ever heard. It features some deliciously distorted guitars over frenzied drumming that really shows how to utilize a ride cymbal. The almost cheeky vocals of guitarist/vocalist Luke Rogalsky could not suit this song any better, blending so seamlessly in with the guitars it’s almost enough to make a grown man cry. Seriously, this track made me wish that I had discovered Mystery Machine closer to the start of the summer. It’s the perfect song to lounge around to on a summer evening, with a few good beers and a few good friends. They really hit the nail on the head when naming this one, it just grabs you by the throat as soon as it begins and never loosens its hold. To sum it up in one word, it’s simply blissful. And thankfully, the good vibes don’t stop here!

The next (strangely titled) track, “Japanese-Dads”, keeps the summer party atmosphere running nicely, but this time entirely instrumental. This one I found gave me a very Dinosaur Jr./Yuck vibe (although fans of either of the aforementioned artists are sure to love Mystery Machine as a band anyway),  and in particular, the quieter parts gave me tingles. Literally. It goes from dreamily loud and poppy, to just as dreamily quiet and … Still poppy. You can really tell already that Mystery Machine would truly be a force to be reckoned with live with this one, and, given the group’s reputation for apparently punishingly loud stage volumes, there’s no way in HELL I’ll be passing up a chance to see this live. It’s definitely one to jump around like an idiot to, all the while your eardrums take an absolute battering in the best way possible. All that said, I can’t help but feel I’m missing out on the meaning behind the title. Oh well. With music this good, the titles are hardly an issue!

And just as they get you all pumped up, they find a way to lull you into a nice, blissful sense of alleviation. “Runways” opens with some gentle drumming, before the guitars quietly explode (yes, that is, in fact, very possible) into a lush soundscape of distortion and reverb. Rogalsky returns on vocal duty here, but this time, the vocals are layered exquisitely, adding another cheery layer to proceedings. The guitar work really stands out on this track, and the production is excellent, the guitars panned perfectly to balance each other. The final thirty seconds of “Runways” is fantastically mellow, as it gently begins to fade out, it’s hard not feel genuinely elevated. I really can’t say enough about the good vibes this album gives, it’s like audio melatonin. And we aren’t even halfway done!
However, next up we have a *gasp* somewhat sombre track. “Octagon Skylight” really puts a heavy emphasis on Rogalsky’s vocals, as the instrumentation takes a backseat for a while. The guitar work is just as impressive, albeit with the volume slightly down, and the drums are noticeably less frantic and energetic. That said, the instrumentation still retains a dreamy feeling to it, and, while it may be the least joyful track so far, that’s not to say it’s actually depressing or anything. Just ever so less likely to make one drop everything and dance like an idiot.

And on that note, we continue on to the halfway point of the album. “Floatist” again goes for a more downbeat approach, this time actually nearly touching genuinely sombre tones. Although, that’s not to say it’s at all depressing. That would be terribly out of character for Western Magnetics after all. This time, the guitars have noticeably less effects, bar the absolute hammering of distortion pedals during the chorus, and the vocals are almost whispered in the verses. The bass also takes on its most prominent role so far, carried along nicely by gentle drumming and hazy guitars that are chock full of reverb. This is yet another track that just begs to be heard live, as it swings from the gently picked notes of the verses to the heaviness of the choruses. If, as I’ve said before, this album were to be played at a party, this is one to have on as the sun begins to fade. But don’t worry, we’re (thankfully) nowhere near the end of this party just yet.

“We Won’t Return” may have a less than gleeful name, and it’s only appropriate, as it continues the chilled atmosphere established by the three proceeding songs. This one is by far the most relaxed song on offer, lacking any form of percussion at all, and also no bass. Instead, the guitars and make a lush soundscape for the vocals to gently swirl over, yet again drawing to mind images of lazy summer evenings.

With a name like “House On Fire”, I was expecting the next track to again kick my eardrums about, but Mystery Machine threw a bit of a curveball at me. It may have the most amount of distortion (or, in fact, effects in general) so far, but not in a way designed to pummel the listener into submission. Instead, they manage to make the plentiful distortion sound ethereally haunting somehow. The guitars again take centre stage, as the vocals, bass and drums set up a nice ambience to the six-stringed chaos. Crushingly gentle is a nice way to sum it all up (despite, yet again, how contradictory it may sound).

I was genuinely shocked as the opening notes of “Snow” came in with absolutely no distortion whatsoever. Of course, it doesn’t last. We are talking shoegaze here after all, people! The real standout here though is the return of the contrast between quiet, mellow verses and cacophonous choruses. The vocals standout yet again on this track, this time with the most emotion so far. They swing gently from spoken, to sang, to whispered, and back again. The dynamics are done to absolute perfection, although, at this point, you’d expect no less form these crazy Canadians, eh?

And, yet again, they come out with a somewhat surreal title that seems to have gone COMPLETELY over my head. “Bullshit Patrol” is the noisiest track on here, with the droning guitars never relenting for even a second after they come in. The distant drums that open the track really set the scene, and the two combined make the whole song sound as if it was recorded on a snowy Vancouver mountainside. I got a very My Bloody Valentine-esque vibe from this one in particular, and believe me, that is really not a comparison I would use lightly.

As “Bullshit Patrol” dies gently out, we unfortunately reach the finale of our sonic journey. Closer “Northern Analog” is, quite simply, chilling. The nearly whispered vocals over long, drawn out ambience is absolutely breath-taking, keeping the same snowy, mountainous atmosphere of the proceeding “Bullshit Patrol”, albeit this time, it’s much more sombre and ethereal. It may be the only track on show with no distortion, or even traditional instrumentation, but this does nothing to take away from its impact. If anything, it only increases its impact.

In summary, Western Magnetics is pretty much the most exciting shoegaze album I have heard in quite some time. It’s got all you could want and more – chilling vocals, crushing guitars, frantic drums, distorted bass, and simultaneously absolutely oozes both atmosphere and crushing heaviness, sometimes separately, mostly together. My only criticism here is that I wish I could have experienced it sooner into the summer. That said, I will definitely be experiencing this live as soon as I possibly can, and if you like your guitars crushingly heavy while simultaneously hauntingly atmospheric, I can only urge you to do the same too.


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