Ores And Minerals
, February 20th, 2013 14:02
On paper, the Manc/London trio Mazes are the archetypal UK DIY underground band. Bassist Conan Roberts runs Italian Beach Babes, a label so DIY they release stuff on cassette, while singer/guitarist Jack Cooper has his own cassette-toting indie Suffering Jukebox. They have no manager, record quickly, spontaneously and self-release, drive themselves around on tour and call their songs things like 'Painting of Tupac Shakur'. Cooper is so versed in the art of being DIY that he penned a piece for The Guardian entitled "The Ten Golden Rules of Being in a DIY Indie Band". It was a bloody good piece too – funny and sage for one so young. But anyone reading that article, or anything else written about the band to date, would end up under the illusion that Mazes are some weirdo experimental band making music from the fringes for emo outsiders to obsess over, thus alienating Mr "I Buy Five Albums a Month from Amazon to Play in My Lexus", whose patronage is essential to propel a band into the upper reaches of the album charts. And Mazes are actually far more accessible than their deportment would suggest…
Ores And Minerals, the follow-up to 2011's A Thousand Heys (a record in thrall to the lo-fi college rock of the 1990s and Pavement in particular; all oblique lyricism, drum kits tumbling down the stairs and two-chord riffs), is an interesting album, but It's not all arch and angular and post-whatever and too cool for school. It's full of catchy hooks and supremely hummable melodies. Hell, there's even an intonation on 'Sucker Punched' where Cooper sounds fleetingly like Mark Morriss from the Bluetones. It's over in a flash – I had to rewind to check I hadn't dreamt it – but it's there (at 1m 25s), a plaintive cadence on a "you know" that is reminiscent of the disregarded Britpoppers, whose first album I happen to still enjoy, so this is in no way meant as a denigration. That noted the whole song starts to bear an uncanny resemblance to something on the Bluetones' debut Learning To Fly, albeit if Morriss and chums had grown up listening to grunge and bands signed to Dischord. It's an unlikely alliance granted – Britpop and post-hardcore – but in the hands of Cooper and the skilled rhythm section of Roberts and Kiwi drummer Neil Robinson it works brilliantly.
It's not just 'Sucker Punched' where there is an unlikely allusion to be made. Opener 'Bodies' sounds like Squeeze, but Squeeze backed by Neu! and orchestrated by Mark E. Smith barking the 3Rs of "REPETITION! REPETITION! REPETITION!" at Roberts and Robinson, who keep the hypnotic rhythm going for a full seven minutes with no gear changes, capped off by a splendidly frazzled denouement from Cooper. 'Delancey Essex' is a distant cousin of The Coral's 'Pass It On', all Ringo Merseybeat shuffle and understated hooks, until the Spiral Stairs-aping guitar solo meanders into play. There's a trio of songs towards the end of the album – 'Bite', 'Jaki' and 'Skulking' – where Cooper is a ringer for Ray Davies of the Kinks, especially on 'Skulking', a belting krauty garage rocker that also recalls the Fall (Cooper slips a knowing MES "uh" in at one point), rounded off by an imaginary axe-duel between Dave Davies and Lou Reed. 'Bite' is beatless, insidious and creepy, a bit like Clinic, while 'Jaki' (in honour of the Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, perhaps?) is a sunnier, weirder take on the workmanlike rock of Low Budget-era Kinks, with gorgeous vocal harmonies and glittery guitar lines.
For any zealous Mazes and FatCat fans that would rather eat their own liver than listen to melodious Britpop, don't fear! 'Dan Higgs Particle' is a tribute to the Lungfish singer; an appropriately frictional slab of post-hardcore with thick distorted riffs. On the title track, over a motorik drum machine groove and spidery Wire guitar lines, Cooper gives good Malkmus, rhyming "visceral" with "mineral" and "peripheral", alongside talk of "kicking cars in". But the closer 'Slice', is a pointer to the band's brilliant future. A phasing synth and (in another nod to Britpop's past) a gorgeous chiming guitar riff redolent of John Squire's work on The Stone Roses' 'Tears', combine with Cooper's sweetly vulnerable lyric for an emotional finale. "The USA isn't great, it's just OK, we can go," he croons. In his piece for The Guardian, Cooper warns bands off trying to break America ("Only Coldplay and U2 have ever actually made money from touring America") and here he seems to be dissuading a lover from going there. The irony is, though, that if Mazes keep making records this good, they could well be coerced into having a crack at the States.
If 2013 is going to be characterised by the resurgence of guitar bands, Mazes have laid down their marker. They are pivotal players in the UK underground scene but have demonstrated that they have the ability to stick their heads above the DIY parapet and into the CD players of the nation's Lexus's. It's the first great guitar album of the year (pipe down Kevin, m b v wasn't an album crafted with 2013 in mind) – stimulating, idiosyncratic, occasionally challenging, but most importantly, jam-packed full of proper tunes.