I still recall hearing ‘Arcarsenal’, the astonishing opening track to At The Drive In’s third (and tragically final) album, for the first time way back in 2000. The music contained in that album was a near perfect collision of forward thinking progressive rock and hardcore and it is hard to quantify the number of band’s inspired in that album’s wake. ‘Arcarsenal’ itself still has the power to send shivers down the spine and a recent vinyl reissue gave me a moment to revisit that album’s sonic splendour all over again. Not that the former members of At The Drive In vanished. Formed in 2001, the Mars Volta focused on the band’s progressive side and the result was a series of increasingly complex and devilishly indecipherable albums. The band had a good run, but finally called it a day in 2012 leaving the fate of Omar Rodríguez-López (guitar) and Cedric Bixler-Zavala (vocals) uncertain. It would not be long before the duo would rise again, however, and at the beginning of the year it was announced that the band had recruited drummer Dave Elitch (also connected with The Mars Volta) and ‘borrowed’ bassist Flea (yes, that one) for a new project, Antemasque, which heralded a return to faster, punkier pastures than either of the musicians had embraced in years. The result is the self-titled debut album which does much to recall the frenzied art punk of Fugazi and their fiercely independent ilk, and it is certainly something to get excited about.
The album opens with the nimble ‘4AM’ which has a chrome-plated Sonic Youth vibe with its throbbing bass and mangled chords whilst Cedric veers between an eighties croon and that fractured yelp that has been his trademark for the last decade or so. It’s a great introduction to the album and the focus on melody as well as power makes for a memorable introduction to the new band. ‘I got no remorse’ is a faster, leaner effort with bristling guitars and snarled vocals hitting the listener like an electric shock. Better still is the weird art-rock of ‘ride like the devil’s son’ which plays out like amphetamine charged blues filtered through Dick Dale on acid. With tremolo-laden guitar and a chorus straight out of Easy Rider it’s a great track that stays in the memory long after the disc has spun to a halt. Heading back into hyper-speed Sonic Youth territory, ‘In the lurch’ is a frenzied punk blast played on mangled guitars with a dazed expression and a permanent sneer. In contrast, ’50, 000 kilowatts’ slips into the weirdly distorted pop territory of Urge Overkill as does ‘Momento Mori’ – two tracks which employ off-kilter rhythms, impossibly infectious melodies and Omar’s odd-ball, distinctive guitar work.
Breaking out the acoustics, ‘drown all your witches’ sees the band heading ever further back in time, slipping into the dreamy pop of the early seventies with a sound that recalls ‘Buffalo Springfield’, all jangly guitar and reverb-drenched vocals only for ‘Providence’ to go storming out into the desert with its heavily distorted, slow-mo riffs and deranged harmonies. Easily one of the album’s most haunting songs, it’s a remarkable effort that segues into a punishing chorus without sacrificing the dark atmosphere that makes the song so fascinating. The album’s steady shift into unconventional territory is maintained with the hot-wired blues of ‘People forget’ with its awkward time shifts and echoing guitar lines. The album ends, all too quickly, with ‘Rome armed to the teeth’, an angular piece that heads back in a punk direction, bringing the album to a suitably thunderous close.
Whilst At the Drive In was a ferocious blast of hardcore with progressive aspects and The Mars Volta a pure progressive band, it is arguable that with Antemasque Cedric and Omar have finally perfected the sound they’ve been exploring over the years. The balance here between seething riffs, memorable melodies and progressive time signatures is so brilliantly achieved that the whole sounds deceptively simple until you start trying to break down what the band are playing. The songs, meanwhile, explore the wonderfully varied history of Americana with hints of blues, punk and progressive rock all bought together in an alternative framework that recalls the beautifully fuzzy workouts of the early 90s (think Fugazi, Jesus Lizard, Primus and Urge overkill and you have the right ballpark). There is no filler here. The band have worked hard to bring their disparate influences together in one coherent whole and the result is an album that continually surprises with its innovative twists and turns. In short Antemasque is a triumph and will undoubtedly reach beyond the fans of At the drive in and The mars volta to speak to a whole new audience. Highly recommended, Antemasque is a refreshingly different album that deserves your attention.