Click to hear: “You Need to Know How to Rush”
Jay Lobley is an ambitious, talented songwriter, and with his new band, Cult Maze, he has crafted a powerful debut called The Ice Arena. On first listen, the band offers plenty to draw you in – a parcel of hooks and catchy refrains, sinuous guitar and synth lines, curious words or phrases that pop. After that initial, easy earful, you may take more notice of frequent time and tone changes, and you may wonder if you should exert the effort to start thinking about this music, to figure it out. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with darker, more complex waters that lie beneath the surface of this recording.
The 10-track album opens with a procession of five muscular songs that work as an impressive set. With great confidence and apparent ease, Cult Maze (formerly known as The Funeral) delivers inspired melodic phrases, dazzling riffs, odd chord changes and shifts of dynamics, and half-lit vocal flourishes. For instance, “Another A to Z” bursts forth with a guitar line (worthy of Tom Verlaine) that strides across a sheet of super-synthetic keys and deposits you into the dread-filled circus atmosphere of the verse. Lobley’s singing sounds committed and true, but mysterious too. His vocal has been addled digitally, slightly obscuring pleasingly elliptical lyrics like “You could remember every letter to be sure/Then when you fall down you’ll know what you fell for.” Choices like these reveal a dark, serious wit at the controls.
This track crossfades into “We Are the Dead End Streets,” a shadowy blend of poppy verses and cloudy, ambient sections featuring lovely keyboard work by Peet Chamberlain. The fragile last verse dissolves into the album’s obvious single, “You Need to Know How to Rush,” which hurtles from the gate with a killer 39-note guitar line (played twice). This song fills 3:08 with exactly the right ratio of sweetness, longing, smarts, and anthemic ambitions. The second section of each verse recalls the best of New Order by adding stereo vocals, stinging guitar stabs on the backbeat, eighth notes on bass (played by Aaron Hautula), and a curtain of synth.
Though “Oh My” starts with a dinky Casio part, this fourth song opens out as a slow, airy, poetic meditation that displays drummer Andrew Barron’s best work on the album. After two verses, the composition turns a sharp corner with a parade of chords and a drum break. This tendency to stitch disparate sections together with bridging chords and beats is a signature of Cult Maze. It works nicely here, and later takes an even more dramatic (and chancy) swerve into a third section that ends the song. Finally, we’re blasted with “A Shell in the Waves,” the most ferocious track on The Ice Arena. It’s an angst-filled raver, replete with urgently loping bass riffs, a sizzling lead vocal, call-and-response hollers by Chamberlain and Lobley, and crazed sax and guitar solos (by the same pair). If this were a vinyl record, the exhausted last chord of this song would mark a sinewy and satisfying end to Side 1.
Like some people my age, I remain frustrated by the formal limitations of the compact disc format; I find the structural possibilities of LP’s more rewarding. With an LP, artist and listener experience two sets of songs, featuring two beginnings (one hard, one soft) and two endings (ditto). Thus, the second song on the second side can have fairly specific connotations to some people, in a way that track 7 probably cannot. It’s quite hard to structure an “album” on CD – to make 10 songs cohere as a cycle with no intermission.
In this sense, The Ice Arena founders at track 6. The trouble may lie in the unforgiving format of the compact disc. Or maybe it’s just that this song, “Spring Time Everywhere,” contains what sound to me like a couple of bloated or trite moves. Or perhaps by this point I simply need a break from the aforementioned “curtain of synth,” courtesy of the Roland RS-202. I’d wager it’s a bit of all three. As a listener, my responses blur a bit before the 20-minute mark of The Ice Arena; I find myself wanting less. I gather that Lobley and Cult Maze are instinctively drawn to drama, and several songs find the band going for the big gesture. Yet these swollen moments – as well as the carefully designed and well-played bars leading up to those moments – end up being my least favorite parts of the album. Whereas these complicated transitional passages rely on prog- or arena-rock gestures, I believe the band sounds best when they’re not trying to be grand or flashy.
Don’t get me wrong — there are treasures in the second half of the CD. What might have been Side 2 opens with “Vex Torsion,” a nifty, peculiar, disorienting piece of work. The position of second song on the second side is occupied by “The Mystik,” one of three tracks posted on the band’s MySpace page, which features a big, dark, swinging chorus built around the lyric “Now that I’ve become sinister, the world seems so brand new/It’s like an endless room with a picture of the bus station.” The shortest song on the CD, “2x Libre,” packs a lot of fun into 2:32, with transcendent guitar lines that fly across and around the beat and the vocal melody. Once more Lobley’s style reminds me of Verlaine’s – that is, guitar as thought, as an exhilarating alternate consciousness.
The obvious album closer is the nine-minute “On a Branch.” Not unlike Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova,” this song starts – and ends – as a quiet pastoral (“Sitting on a branch, trying to find me”) and boasts a middle passage that is the sonic equivalent of a terraced hillside, which the band climbs, lengthening its stride and achieving considerable power as it ascends. Somehow, this song has an easier relationship with its own grandeur than a couple other tracks. When I played The Ice Arena (recorded by Marc Bartholemew at Bandsaw and mastered by Scott Elson, formerly of Gateway Mastering) a few weeks back on Radio Junk Drawer, the obvious charms of “On a Branch” got the studio phone ringing several times.
Cult Maze is a commanding presence among an array of talented Portland bands that are connected to each other in various ways. For example, Lobley helped Diamond Sharp put together its debut EP this past year. After contributing toThe Ice Arena, Hautula decided to concentrate on playing bass for Satellite Lot; Joshua Lorring has taken his place. And it will be a little while before you see Cult Maze playing out to support this impressive debut album, because Barron is on the road with Phantom Buffalo this summer.
When they do take the stage again, I’ll be there with a lot of other people, cheering.
— David Pence
The Ice Arena is available at Strange Maine and Bull Moose Music.
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).