Click to hear: “Slow Vein”
This band might be better than Badfinger.
I’m not joking. I haven’t been this whipped up about a group and its new album since Badfinger released Straight Up in 1972.
In the wake of their stunning debut, The Ice Arena, Cult Maze zigzagged around Inertia, Paralysis, Vanity and Bloat to create this dazzling follow-up. How? By fixing their eyes on the prize— the song form—and growing more fervent, sinewy, and self-assured in their collective skin.
I first heard the songs that led to 35, 36 about a year ago, when the band hit the stage shortly after releasing the first record. I found the new material difficult—it seemed willfully complicated compared to the earlier work. Yet I also sensed that it was vital for the quartet, which included then-new member Joshua Loring on bass and guitar, to move forward rather than coast on the celebrated wheels of their debut.
Now we have 35, 36, a trove of beautifully constructed and feverishly executed songs. This is a major piece of work.
The album is constructed like an LP record. Each “side” has five songs and lasts just over 20 minutes. Cult Maze has the confidence to kick off 35, 36 with a mid-tempo, melancholic, lyrical song, “Iceburg.” It begins with four strums of cloudy electric guitar and Jay Lobley singing in his most vulnerable voice, “I have to wait ’til she goes back to bed / Then I will put on my sweatshirt and head out into the night.” After eight bars, the vocal disappears and the instruments push and shove until the band bursts into the second verse, all pistons firing.
As the last ringing chord of this song fades out, Andrew Barron starts “My Head” with a loose but assertive drum rhythm. A single low-E string introduces a counter-rhythm, then Peet Chamberlain’s keyboard swoops in, laying down a synthetic bed for the verse that sounds two ticks away from Van Halen’s “Jump.” Here Lobley’s vocals are rubbery and idiosyncratic—in the chorus, he turns head into a multi-syllabic word.
The next few songs are variegated pop-prog patchworks. “Treble Treble” begins with serpentine guitar and bass lines that conjure Steve Howe and Chris Squire. “Slow Vein” starts with a dinky Roland figure that most improbably gives way to a colossal sucker punch of a riff. Closing Side One is “Reggie Lewis,” a long, theatrical piece with sudden reversals, shifting dynamics, tricky time signatures, a faux fadeout, and some wanker soloing near the end. Despite this ability to be complex and flashy, Cult Maze is best when they stay lean.
The album sounds remarkably clear and deep, and much credit goes to Jon Wyman, who recorded and mixed the songs at The Halo. The guitars grind and sneer, keyboards glide in and out, the vocals are warm and rich and mixed forward. Wyman got a fabulous drum sound—full yet crisp—and there’s enough sonic space to hear pop trimmings like handclaps and tambourine —accents that help unify the record.
The potential first single, “Sticky Limos,” starts Side Two. Its shiny verses and stylish lyrics pop out of the speakers. Here the singer seems underdressed and exposed as he traces a shapely (and somehow hopeful) melody that darkens with the lyric, “I need to write a movie that I’d be glad to hide in.” The song ends with swirling keyboard flourishes, lending a measure of Busby Berkeley glamour to the atmosphere of longing.
After the silence that sets off the single, the band unleashes a storm of power-pop energy. “S. Moist” and “Dreamstick” are stripped-down rockers with snarling guitars and vocals dripping with attitude. “Wethouse” is a thrusting panic attack in which guitars, bass and drums wrestle a floral, proggy keyboard motif to the ground and stomp on it.
The album comes to a glorious, unhinged end with “Never Lever.” A majestic instrumental intro eventually drops you into an unsettled place where Lobley’s voice—seemingly recorded inside a space capsule—spookily sings oblique lyrics like, “the future’s in the ’50s / it always was.” After two verses, the band pauses, reloads, and shoots the windows out of the bogus silver craft.
I laughed when I heard they were calling the album 35, 36. It’s so audacious. I’ve since come to like the cadence of the spoken syllables. To me, the title is a mark of the group’s refusal to pander or choose the easy path. Get in on this thing now, because something special is in progress.
— David Pence
Bollard music critic David Pence is the host of Radio Junk Drawer, heard Wednesdays from 3 p.m.-5 p.m. on community radio station WMPG (90.9 and 104.1 FM; wmpg.org).