here is a telling difference between a band that strives to be mysterious and one that achieves mystique. Artists that feature identity-veiling gimmicks, give cryptic, minimalist interviews, or guise their albums as mediations received from higher powers, often fall prey to pretense and not only lose credibility, but also awkwardly detach themselves from the listener. But within a musical world diluted by such forced ingenuity are bands whose existence remains completely, while effortlessly, enigmatic.
Though Mahjongg has yet to publish a clear, colored picture of themselves, usually sets their vocals low in the mix, and fills up both their website content and liner notes with dozens of jumbled, black-on-white lines of text, their mysterious aura is ultimately achieved through a complex, genre-less, analog recorded collection of late 70’s lo-fi guitar, polyrhythmic drum explosions, fuzzed-out bass lines, and glorious keyboard complements. Like Animal Collective, The Fire Show, and the Black Dice, among others, Mahjongg’s sound achieves such a high level of eclectic density, it seems impossible for such a body of sound to be humanly recorded on one-inch tape. Raydoncong 2005 does not paint a picture of two guitarists, a bassist, a keyboard player, and a percussionist casually performing in the studio. Instead, it gives insight into a collection of artists who—among either 1,000 or 100,000 people—may soon be regarded as legends.
In describing their brilliant, controlled bombast, 1980’s Talking Heads are the easiest reference point, as tribal polyrhythm backs dense instrumental montages that occasionally include jittery, treble-happy, David Byrne guitar work. But to cast Mahjongg off as another American band heavily influenced by 1977-1982 would serve as a great injustice. Raydoncong displays purpose, musical know-how, and production prowess seldom seen in modern music. Produced by Mahjongg themselves, each song yields multiple layers of crisp, retro instrumental figures. The album joins Dungen’s Ta Det Lugnt, Ariel Pink’s The Doldrums, The Go! Team’s Thunder, Lightning, Strikes, and Junior Senior’s D-D-Don’t Stop the Beat in the past two years’ “Wow! This wasn't recorded before 1980?” best-of category. Like its fellow vintage guru predecessors, the record swells with analog warmth, mediating each instrument through its raw, rough hewn reel-to-reel median. All ten tracks feature the tested vintage production technique and stand as separate entities within the album. Compositions range from the addictive “The Rrabbitt,” whose thumping bass lines and tribal percussion surround a lush falsetto, to “Vaxination”—a single-ready, pop sensible number that pounds a big bass line over lo-fi guitar, and fun-loving melodies, before transitioning into a calming 50’s TV theme interlude.
Although the ten songs are each individuals in their own right, Raydoncong 2005 expertly balances this song variety with album cohesion. An imbalance between the two all too often prevents a good album from reaching the next level: some albums either feature the same good band playing the same type of good songs (Walking With Thee) or contain good songs from an artist unnecessarily taking on the role of multiple musical personas (LCD Soundsystem). Raydoncong captures an equilibrium between the two, quite similar to Faust’s IV—no two songs are alike, but each track sticks to the band’s established strengths. Every song utilizes the same relentless, multi-layered, multi-movement, retro formula and offers the listener a dose of art that, essentially, he or she might only hear once. The “This is far from over / There’s mud in our blood” chants of the album’s anthem track, “Hot Lava,” the Sly Stone cardboard drumming at the end of “Thegg,” the Krautrock churching of “BBG-9298,” and the music box bell melody spilled over acoustic strumming in closing track “Bismoc Ux” have no substitutes.
Sure, one could still argue that there are plenty of similar artists out there—shades of Africa, late 70’s New York, and early 80’s Manchester can be heard within the band’s debut album. But ultimately, the only color streaming through the airwaves belongs to Mahjongg. In Raydoncong 2005 Mahjongg’s musical color is one of the most spastically beautiful and innovative of 2005.
Reviewed by: Kyle McConaghy
Reviewed on: 2005-04-05