Often when I hear that a band or musician plays "Christian rock," I immediately accept the fact that the music will have all the originality and hook-laden grooves of 19th century Presbyterian hymns.
It seems that in their zeal for praising the Lord, many Christian rockers (and rappers) forget that they still need to produce good music. It is as if the Holy Spirit robs them of their ability to make informed aesthetic choices, and audiences typically do little in the way of helping these musicians to the Altar of Rock. If they're singing about Jesus, then it's got to be good - so why not lend support? Most Christian rockers should be thankful that the God of the Old Testament is no longer keeping office hours. Known for a good smiting every once in a while, He would have his hands full making examples of the mediocre musicians who offer up trite, familiar melodies and words.
But is there not one righteous band amongst the Christian rockers of the world worthy of sparing? Indeed, and it is Mute Math, who come to bless the Tremont Music Hall on Saturday, Oct. 22.
However, labeling them a Christian band is something of a misnomer, in the way that U2 might sometimes be referred to as a Christian band. The members of Mute Math clearly have a belief system grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but they don't allow themselves to be trapped in the paradigm of power-praise rock.
Formed from the failed New Orleans-based rock-rap outfit Earthsuit (which was decidedly more overt in its proclamations of faith), Paul Meany (vocals/keys), Darren King (drums/samples/programming), and Roy Mitchell-Cardenas (bass) joined with guitarist Greg Hill in 2001. In 2004, they released the EP Reset independently, and utilizing the wonders of internet buzz and marketing managed to move a staggering 30,000 copies. (Just to offer a sense of how difficult that is, in 1992 The Wallflowers - arguably one of the finer pop-rock outfits of the 1990s - was only able to sell 25,000 copies of its first album with the international distribution machinery of Virgin Records behind them). Naturally, this garnered the interest of Warner Bros. Records, who re-released the EP to a national audience.
While it might have seemed an intervention of providence at the outset, this collaboration with Warner Bros., particularly their Christian music division, caused problems for the band. Mute Math didn't want to be labeled Christian rockers; they wanted to be known as a good band. And who can blame them for that? Despite U2's (especially Bono's) frequent declarations of belief, who ever thinks of them as a Christian band? The Christian label was becoming more of a hindrance than a blessing, and so Mute Math split with Warner, returned to their independent label Teleprompt and commenced to rocketh.
At the end of September, Mute Math's self-titled full-length debut hit stores, offering a collection of songs that draws comparisons to the Police, Coldplay, and the electronic grooves of DJ Shadow and Brian Eno. Prior to the album's release they were featured at such mega-festivals as Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and the Vans' Warped Tour. Have no doubt: these boys are clearly on a mission.
And how can they not be? They are perhaps the first band to ever utilize a keytar - (Oh, you remember the keytar, that bastard child born of the mating of a guitar with a keyboard? In the 1980s, it was quite the rage, and because it was relatively new, no one knew exactly how to use it without sounding awfully cheesy) - in a way that enhances the music rather than detracts from it. That alone is enough to warrant going to see Mute Math perform live, especially since it's in its live performances where the band really shines. And if the keytar doesn't offer enough allure to reel you in, then the drumming mayhem of Darren King is worth the price of the ticket by itself: with headphones duct-taped to his head, King's known for flailing precision while laying down beats that run the spectrum from tight, in-the-pocket funk/hip-hop to the loose roar of arena rock thunder.
The musical purists will appreciate that Mute Math's sound is a blend of modern technology dipped in the richness of vintage amplifiers and instruments. While they utilize loops and electronica, there is a tone to its songs that aficionados will recognize as only being possible played through instruments that have warmed with age.
While Mute Math concocts a rock aesthetic that bears comparisons to some of the other great rock bands playing now (the Killers, Coldplay, Doves), their lyrics are simultaneously their strong point and weakest link: "I know you stay true when my world is false/Everything around's breaking down in chaos/I always see you when my sight is lost." Those few lines from the powerful rocker "Chaos" articulate a beautiful sentiment about love, and to those listeners unaware of Mute Math's beginnings it will most likely be a lyric interpreted as such.
But for the Christian music community, the ambiguity of the lyric offers another way of framing the band: proselytizers with a keytar. The same is true for the songs "Stalling Out" ("I keep stalling out/I just can't keep up/There's alarming doubt/Am I good enough?") and "Typical" ("I know there's got to be another level/Somewhere closer to the other side/And I'm feeling like it's now or never/Can I break the spell of the typical?"). Both are fine songs, but for a band trying to emerge from the shadow of the Christian rock label, they've got a heavy cross to bear: there's no hiding the sacred that resides in Mute Math's lyrics, not even with the secular rock & roll that they play so well.
When all is said and done, however, Mute Math is a solid American rock band from New Orleans, a place known for its blend of sacred and profane. And it is most definitely on its way to larger venues: have a little faith in the band's ability to rock you senseless, and catch them at Tremont before you wind up watching them from the lawn at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in a few years.