By this time a lot of folks have forgotten that New Orleans quartet Mute Math rose from the ashes of Earthsuit, a short-lived Christian rock band that was actually pretty great. Released in the same year as landmarks like Kid A and Stankonia, Earthsuit’s lone studio album didn’t exactly revolutionize the entire face of music, but, by Christian rock standards, it might as well have; the music was not just relentlessly eclectic, drawing from hip-hop and rock and classic R&B, but it combined those elements in fresh ways and married them to lyrics that studiously avoided clichés, rendering them the exceedingly rare Christian band that was able to express their faith—and their music—with real originality.
In other words, Earthsuit did a lot of things very well. Mute Math, on the other hand, does exactly two things very well – splitting the difference between murky electronics and hooky, heart-on-sleeve pop. They’re led by Paul Meany, who played keys and sang in Earthsuit, and they’ve dramatically pared down the eclecticism of that former incarnation. There’s no hip-hop here – just skittering, nervous electro-beats. Reggae and R&B are jettisoned, as well, in favor of a sound indebted to ’80s art-rock icons U2, Peter Gabriel, and Talking Heads. The band, in a nustshell, then, is this: a careful balancing act between arena-swelling grandeur and the hazy avant-garde.
It’s a line they walked pretty well on their debut, which managed to ease gradually from post-rock instrumentals into surging rockers, but the picture is a little blurrier on follow-up Armistice. This is a denser album, and also less varied. Rather than explore their fascinations and unwind their influences at a steady pace, they throw them all together on nearly every song here, resulting in an album of big, fist-pumping rockers cloaked by electronic gauze. The chiming guitars in “Goodbye” suggest that their heart beats for U2, but the downbeat sheen that mucks up the other songs suggests a great affection for Radiohead or Muse.
Mute Math makes that chasm out to be bigger than it really is. There’s no reason why these influences can’t co-habitate, but Armistice just sounds like overkill. I like some of the little details hidden in their layers of sound – especially the simulated jazz saxophone in “Backfire,” cleverly nodding to their native city – and I’m impressed by Darren King’s rocksteady drumming. But the layers of sound become tedious, and the hooks are all so oversized and urgent that they run together. It’s a relief when the ballad-like “Pins and Needles” appears – it’s the one time the band channels their creativity into something with texture and restraint, not just an onslaught of sound.