Fast Future Present
azz-rock…still there?…OK…jazz-rock is probably one of easy genres of music to denigrate without having to listen to. All too often jazz gets used as the pejorative, overshadowing anything rock could have to do with the equation at all. Mandarin’s second release, Past, Present and Future isn’t strictly jazz-rock (sometimes it touches on math-, folk-, post-, etc.), but the signifier is probably the best way to describe their sound. And that’s a shame. Because Past, Present and Future is an album that deserves to be heard outside of the 50 copies that were reportedly pressed of this release by C-Level Records. Luckily, Bella Union did get their hands on the disc and will be releasing it in late June to a much wider audience.
At its base, the easiest band comparison to make with Mandarin is Polvo. “How Long?” owes an obvious debt to the tight rhythmic flexibility and Eastern fascination of the group, packing a few tempo changes and a meandering guitar line into a compact 2:30 running time. The vocals, which sound close to something from Bats and Mice debut record, keep the song grounded, while the instrumental portions attempt to push the song higher. The beneficial switches in tempo, which merge the two sections of the song together expertly, keep us on the ground, but just barely. The tempo doesn’t change as quickly on the next track, “Eye on Time”, but consistently grows faster until it bursts forth into an extended coda based around a steady guitar figure.
But, as stated before, the group also knows how rock. “Pilot Light”’s riff is heavy enough for Don Caballero fans but, in this case, is undercut by acoustic guitar and, at times, handclaps. Needless to say, it’s a far more easily digestible morsel of math-rock, not wearing its avant-garde badge as a source of pride. Instead, like Polvo, the melodies and accompaniments are far more concerned with elements of accessibility than further obscuring their sound or ideas.
“The Beginning Hides the End” further proves the band’s range, coming off as a Nick Drake in the era of modern production interlude before perhaps the first dud of the record, “Holiday”. Positioned as an acoustic-led vamp that straddles that uncomfortable line of jazz and rock, the song contains many of the elements that make the record successful: tempo changes, spiraling bridges, effected vocals and at least one hard hitting riff. The effect, however, is of several ideas thrown together. The punishing riff that sweeps the beginning four minutes of the song out of your mind is it’s only strength—and not a strong one at that.
More than anything else, Past, Present and Future is a record that is important because it denotes progress and the promise of far greater things. There is little doubt that there are problems here, making for a sometimes bumpy and sometimes boring (see: “Virus Smile”) ride, but the overall effect is that of seeing a band going through puberty right before your very eyes. Here’s hoping they get to college on the next record.