he idea of listening to an album that combines electronics, free-jazz, post-rock, and noise might sound unpleasant. On its self-titled debut, Mandarin Movie nicely blends the heavily experimental with the directly melodic and tonal, creating an experience not at all inaccessible. The group, led by cornetist/composer Rob Mazurek, sequences the album wisely, moving from most straightforward to most abstract, allowing listeners to be gradually drawn into the orchestrated anarchy of the album's final moments. Mandarin Movie works not only as an entry point for people new to this sort of experimentation, but also as a challenging piece for audiences more familiar with the style.
Although Mazurek serves as bandleader and primary composer, he keeps himself mostly out of the spotlight. He writes effectively and handles the computer, moog, electric eels, etc., but it's really the bass-playing that steals the show on this disc. Matt Lux holds down the tempo from the beginning of album-opener "Orange," but he really doesn't come out until late in the track. After a bit of jazz-funk guitar chording releases control, the ensemble breaks into a mild freakout held in place with rapid snare work. Lux, a little low in the mix, utilizes the funk groove while chipping in a melodic little line. Throughout the rest of Mandarin Movie, he (and double-bassist Jason Ajemian) stays just enough in the background that you could miss them, but they do such interesting stuff that it would be a shame if you did.
The spaz side of things shows up first on part one of "Black Goat." This piece mixes processed squawks and cornet bleats with sustained drumming and fuzzy electronics before climaxing on the second part of "Black Goat" in a high-gain guitar sound supported by quick hits on the tom. The transitions works superbly, but the climax loses its impact as it continues unchanged for nearly two minutes before slowly fading. Had this piece been merged into one three-minute track, it would have been beautiful, as it is, four minutes is just a little long for what the group has to say.
The next five tracks all run for less than three minutes, allowing Mandarin Movie to alternate minimalist tone-work with free-bursts without indulging in stasis on the former or wankery on the latter. "A Very Modern Camera" (in both parts one and two) combines the elements of both traditions; the horns play chaotic improvisations over a slowly modulating undertone of fuzz and electronic effects. At the close of the second part, the band nearly disappears for the simple but affecting "Ghost Ships Don't Sink."
Unfortunately, the 13-minute closer knocks down the momentum that Mandarin Movie had built. "The Highest Building in the World" begins with a foreground of static with some nearly inaudible pitch-shifting underneath. The more traditional musical sound slowly builds into a chord, which then has to fend off nearly-industrial effects for the rest of its length. The track's unusual in some aspects, but it lacks the energy and compositional inventiveness of the first nine, while taking up nearly 1/3 of the album's run-time.
For almost half an hour, though, Mandarin Movie's accessible and engaging; unique enough to catch your attention, but referential enough to tradition (at least the tradition of free-jazz) to help you keep your place. Even lacking a strong ending, the disc rewards repeated listens by unveiling new layers. You just might want to hit stop (or even repeat) before that last track.