RX Bandits were never really a ska band, really. Despite their horn section, the Bandits have always seemed to reach for something more musically complex and diverse than a mere niche genre can contain. And now, with Mandala, their seventh album, they’ve proceeded sans horns to make the most sonically lush and rhythmically diverse album yet.
Mandala is a beast of an album, clocking in at a battering 53 minutes, nearly all of which is jammed with break-neck prog perfection. Here, every musician gives his all, keeping every moment razor taut with anticipation as the ebbs and flows allow for sweeping emotional (not, emo, mind you) grandiosity. The music is something like a more reggae-tinged Mars Volta, but it’s obvious that through the course of their evolution, the Bandits have forged a path entirely their own.
Free from the formulaic nature of ska expectations and working with horns (which appear only on Bury It Down Low), RX Bandits have largely broken free of pop song structures, choosing instead to allow each song to take on a life of its own. And while every instrumentalist performs his duties admirably, drummer Chris Tsagakis is an absolute dynamo, leading a deft and complex rhythm section that flashes between time signatures with flinty precision, never content to rest on familiarity or expectation.
Mandala opens with the slow-building My Only Lonesome Friend, whose opening keyboard run sets a magically global feel to the album before exploding with prog angularity. Matthew Embree’s voice is still emotive and sincere as ever, and his vocal hooks have never been so cutting. Even behind all the experimentation, the ska-punk archetype seems to pull at the Bandits’ musicality like a spelunker’s safety line, tethering even their most zealous explorations to their well-grounded past.
The razor-bleep guitars that open Hope Is A Butterfly, No Net Its Captor… (The Virus Of Silence), are of an entirely new breed, leading the way for Tsagakis’s delightfully unpredictable spastic changeups. March Of The Caterpillar serves as the mid-album resting point, offering slow reggae replete with melancholic doo-doo-doo background falsettos.
Breakfast Cat is lightning fast prog-metal mashed with aspects of the jazzier side of surf rock. Embree’s voice soars over it all, as the band seems unwilling to pick a riff and stick with it. While it may seem that such constant chameleoning would get tiring or even tedious, RX Bandits pull it off – at least if the listener is willing to follow them through all their labyrinthine wanderings.
By the time Mandala burns itself to a smoldering cinder with Bring Our Children Home Or Everything Is Nothing, the listener will be left with either an exhausted sense of having been sonically attacked and even beaten, or an unrelenting desire to circle back and start from the beginning, this time focussing on another aspect of the mosaic. Either way, Mandala is a dizzying and impressive achievement from a band that’s gone too unnoticed for far too long.