The Mass
Perfect Picture of Wisdom and Boldness
2005
B+



metal with sax? Don't bet against it. Rock and sax is often a toxic combination, but Oakland, CA's The Mass ably mixes the instrument with metal, punk, and a dash of post-punk angularity. Although sax is but one instrument in The Mass, its foreign timbre in the metal context vastly expands the genre's possibilities. There aren't any E Street Band, ska, or "funk metal" flashbacks here. Rather, The Mass pick up where John Zorn left off when he name-checked Napalm Death as an influence and collaborated with its drummer Mick Harris. Klezmer was always kick-ass music, but to mix it with thrash invites a hoedown of apocalyptic proportions.

Said hoedown factor was strong on The Mass' full-length debut, City of Dis. The band sounded not unlike Fantomas, with short attention spans and turn-on-a-dime changeups, but with an unapologetic penchant for horns-up metal. If a bit sprawling, the songs were never boring. Behind the snotty humor of songs like "Treadmill of Suffering" and "We Enslaved Elves to Build Our Death Machine" lay real musicality, with speedy thrash riffs, composed sax lines, art-skronk wailing, and quiet passages often appearing in quick succession. On Perfect Picture of Wisdom and Boldness, The Mass refines these elements into a more cohesive whole.

The most immediately noticeable aspect of this album is the production. Drums haven't sounded this good in ages, especially in metal, which has recently been polishing and compressing drums to an unnatural sheen. The drums here actually sound like drums, with a warmth and fullness that recalls classic John Bonham. The rest of the band sounds great, too. The Mass is one of the few metal bands with only one guitar, and the guitar-bass interplay is more like that of a power trio than the usual lockstep metal riffage. The guitar tone is huge, recalling Black Sabbath in the more doomy parts. Best of all, the band actually sounds like a band, with the ebb and flow of a unit that is locked, not to a click track, but with itself.

The songs are still long, but the spazz factor has decreased, with stronger hooks to glue things together. Singer/saxophonist Matt Waters really steps up here with a wide range of vocal styles. Midrange screams, death growls, black metal shrieks, and snide post-punk spoken vocals punctuate "Ride of the Juns" and "Little Climbers of Nifelheim." Their dissonant, swingy grooves show a strong Black Flag influence, down to the Henry Rollins-esque vocal patterns. Waters' sax is melodic and assertive, with harmonized overdubs giving parts of "Cloven Head" and "Corpsewielder" an almost klezmer feel. It's impossible to pin the sax work to labels like jazz or klezmer, though. Like in Morphine, the sax is just another compositional and improvisational element here.

Sax can carry highfalutin connotations, but these grooves are quite grounded. There's a rawness here that conjures up dim rooms, dark wood, leather wristbands, Flying V's. This may be dive bar metal, but it betrays a music degree after a few beers. It's a joyous day when a review can reference Black Sabbath, Black Flag, and black metal.


Reviewed by: Cosmo Lee
Reviewed on: 2005-11-21
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