Cult Maze: The Ice Arena

Cult of personality

Warming up to the Ice Arena

If you’re in Nashville and you play on somebody else’s record, you’re a session musician. If you do it in Portland, you’re just like everybody else. If you’re doing a pop-rock record, call in Spencer Albee and go record with Jon Wyman. If you’re doing a jangledy indie rock record, call in the Extendo-Ride All Stars.

This latter crew debuted with some shows in 2001, Jay Lobley, Peet Chamberlain, and Joe Lops playing musical chairs on stage, with the basic aesthetic being whoever wrote the song gets to play guitar. That crew, with Brandon Davis, then produced the excellent You Are at the Top Level, You Can Not Go up Another Level, released by Pigeon Records in 2002, where they displayed a wide repertoire of musical genres and generally impressed with the songwriting ability.

Lops followed a photographic career out of town, but Chamberlain, Lobley, and Davis stuck around, hooking up with the likes of Andrew Barron, Sydney Bourke, Jeremy Alexander, Aaron Hautula, and Casey McCurry in bands like An Evening With, Diamond Sharp, Satellite Lot, Isodora, Phantom Buffalo, and Esprit de Corps, part of a tight community of indie-pop/rock musicians alternately lining up behind varied and sundry songwriters.

Eventually, says Barron, Lobley “decided he wanted a band for his material and he asked the three of us [Barron, Chamberlain, and Hautula] to help him out.” The result was the Funeral, but that was the name of some metal band, so now it’s Cult Maze, who managed to release a very interesting full-length earlier this summer [this originally ran in the fall of 2006], The Ice Arena, recorded with Marc Bartholomew last year.

All of that is to say that this is Lobley’s record, but it is informed by years of collaborations and co-bills, and the sound is very familiar to those who’ve become fond of a certain sect of musicians in town who are fond of this jangledy indie sound.

But what if jangledy indie pop doesn’t jangle, but rather sort of buzzes and groans? What if Architecture in Helsinki and the Arcade Fire decided to dress themselves like Pavement for Halloween? The result might be something like Cult Maze’s 10 songs here, swimming in ’80s nostalgia while dressed in lo-fi ripped jeans and Goodwill T-shirts.

Remember that lo-fi sound I was all excited about that Marc Bartholomew carved out for Ruler of the Raging Main? Well, it works to lesser effect here – there’s nothing wrong with the sound, per se, but the melodies Lobley crafts suffer without a crispness, and the lyrics are largely lost in some of the wash and scrabble. It’s hard not to wonder, actually, if the vocals aren’t intentionally buried.

Still, Lobley’s bouncy guitar hooks from You Are at the Top Level presage the jolt of melody that opens Ice Arena and “Another A to Z,” and much of the admiration of the pop canon that filled that first album helps this succeed in similar fashion. In this case, the vocals are deep in the mix and sound like they’ve been sampled through a Casio keyboard from 1982, but they develop a sneer for “We Are the Dead End Streets,” which plays with rushing and stalling rhythm. There are echoes of the UK here, whether it’s the shoegazer set or the Madchester crowd.

“A Shell in the Waves” is more upbeat, with a climbing bass line that finishes with a back-and-forth curlicue of sorts from Hautula (who’s since left to focus on Satellite Lot full-time, replaced by Joshua Lorring, formerly of Certain Numbers). Maybe elucidating his songwriting style, Lobley sings, “I talk to myself/ With anyone else/ my imagination is my friend,” somewhat reminiscent of early-Cure Robert Smith. The chorus has a call and response period, with the response slightly clipped, like it’s barely making it through a bad connection. In the bridge, Lobley’s guitar and the bass feed off one another, building off Barron’s steady time on the drums.

“Vox Torsion,” opening with a keyboard line form Chamberlain, is probably the best song here, with a swagger like the Stray Cats and shouts like Big Country. Chiming and descending guitars introduce a bass providing a repeating melody for Barron to perform over. Like many songs here, if this tune had radio ambitions, the chorus would be more distinct, the verse quieter, but this tune doesn’t have radio ambitions (even if WMPG did play it all the way through at one point this summer).

Perhaps most thought-provoking is the nine-minutes-and-more “On a Branch,” something of an anomaly among mostly three-minute pop numbers. A singer-songwriterly opening with a picked out guitar line is pretty weepy. Finally, the cymbals enter and drive the anticipation that isn’t quite consummated by the fairly off-key balladeering that follows: “We make mistakes to hide from the truth/ I’m haunted by the ghost I gave to you.” The song ambles into some Springsteen rock and some vamp before announcing, “they can’t touch us anyway.”

The music fan with an extensive catalog will spend much of this album trying to put a finger on just what these songs sound like, and just what this band is trying to accomplish. In the end, it’s hard to argue the sound isn’t original and consistent, despite its many influences, and that may very well be a goal attained.

The warm nostalgia is an added bonus.

Phantom Buffalo: Take to the Trees

Being the boss

Another glimpse of the Phantom Buffalo

Talk about long-awaited: The new Phantom Buffalo record was recorded at Thundering Sky, down in South Berwick, over four days in August, 2005. That’s right, 2005 [this likely landed better in late-summer 2008, when it was written].

So why do songs I’ve heard 100 times still seem so brand-new? Perhaps it’s the glimmering, polished sheen that coats each of the tracks on Take to the Trees, an album lovingly released by Nemo Bidstrup’s Time-Lag Records with beautifully fantastical packaging and the barest of liner notes. Phantom Buffalo are the rare band that can seem both lo-fi and perfectly produced at the same time, a result of Jonny Balzano-Brookes’ pure and sometimes child-like soprano and the expert intertwining of the band’s three guitarists, Brookes, Phil Willey, and Tim Burns, with instruments as varied as a Moog organ and an accordion.

They have a near perfect feel for song dynamics, as though their tunes were alive and breathing, moving from the barest whisper to a thrumming growl. Somehow, the chorus to “Be the Boss,” perhaps the band’s most well-known song thanks to its inclusion on Greetings from Area Code 207, Vol. 6, says it all: “Even in our minimized world, we can survive, girl.” They’re like a music box that shatters the windows with sound when you open it.

Phantom Buffalo open their disc with “Dusty Disguise,” single-note surf guitar in the right channel, crunchy chords in the left. Now-departed drummer Joe Domrad has a light touch on the cymbals, and Balzano-Brookes is at his most sing-songy, to provide apt contrast with the chorus: “But if we had a long and slow and painful demise/ I think it would it would be like we were covered in a dusty disguise/ And not at all a pretty one.”

They have a knack for making the maudlin merry, and mid-way through “Disguise” they ramp up into a rave-up, full of harmonica and rock: “I’ve been feeling ill lately/ Have you been feeling ill lately?”

No. Listening to this record is like huffing nitrous. I can’t feel a thing.

“Dynamite Squirrels,” from the Killing’s Not Okay EP, features a crisp three-beat all-stop before a crashing chorus. “Mrs. Connelly,” which has been up on the band’s Myspace page for a while, is utterly plaintive, with yet another great singalong — “You can leave all your numbers behind” — chorus and guitars that charge up and crescendo in the second half. “Five Charming Animals” comes off beautifully odd, auto-biographical, and bombastic.

And then there is “Who Was Your Only Man,” which might not be the best song here, but maybe encapsulates everything this band is capable of. It opens just about cow-punk, carnivalesque, with drums keeping you slightly off balance. The accordion provides a backing wash, while we empathize with Balzano-Brookes: “In the spring/ I’d like a thing/ With a lovely girl/ But I can’t/ And I won’t/ Because I’m lost in the world.” Later Burns (who also sings lead here on the poignant “84 Today”) chimes in with some great call and response in the second verse before the band build through finish into a distortion-filled jam, like the best of Built to Spill.

It’s an epic in 4:23, just as this album has everything you could want in nine songs and 35 minutes. Phantom Buffalo continue to deliver on all of their promise — even if they’re a couple years late in doing so.