The seven year existence of Maps & Atlases has seen their sound evolve in a way that’s been both significant and in keeping with their most signature elements.
After the release of Trees, Swallows, Houses in 2007 – the band’s first EP under the wing of a record label – there was rumbled appreciation for the jagged math guitars and yelps. But responses to their more recent material, in the shape of debut full-length Perch Patchwork, have been rather more mixed. The Illinois quartet’s steady construction of a sonic identity has been built around a complex map of fretwork, rhythms and lyrical melodies. And while the debut LP might’ve fallen short of the perfect fit for their busy style of music making, Beware and Be Grateful appears to be a reconciliation of sorts.
This record sees much more of an alignment with artists occupying the north eastern corner of America; Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend, tUnE-yArDs. But an underlying preference for math-rhythmed riffs keeps much of the material fresh.
Intelligent layering and soft electronic beats lend a twist to Dave Davison’s Justin Vernon-esque (Bon Iver) vocal on Old And Gray. Beauty, sadness and aching melancholy mix among sighing ‘oohs’, twiddling guitars and a twinkling loop, with a lyric that declares, “When you are old and grey I hope that someone holds you the way I would.” A seamless blend leads into Fever – a five minute slice of happiness with an ‘80s take on African drums and textured guitars. And while this opening duo shrouds Maps & Atlases’ math-dotted history, Winter – albeit washed down with one spoonful of sweetness too many – begins to let those taught, plucked strings and double-tapped flurries into the fray.
Many of the album’s tracks are really quite beguiling, thanks to a take on the riffs and rhythms of African music that renders them not dissimilar to a Vampire Weekend record. Remote and Dark Years mix tongue-twistingly quick with slow, repeated vocals, which suits Davison’s warm baritone and calls to Paul Simon’s Zulu musical influences and delivery. Low-toned steel drums and a beat comprised clattering drumsticks and clashing of metal on metal pushes Silver Self even further into African territory – its scratchy sound not dissimilar to tUnE-yArDs, with Merrill Garbus’ utterly joyous, unpredictable vocal style.
Yet throughout, the math influences are audible – sometimes directly, sometimes through technique. A dizzying riff punctuates Bugs, whose stripped back layers add a touch of a cappella to the album. Old Ash runs in that same deceptively simple vein, pulling the pace back with a stark bass drum and soft clicks as the metronome.
There are blips. Vampires waters down the captivating layers Beware and Be Grateful has developed towards, with a template rock riff that feels out of place, rather than acting as a natural seague. And like a sobering curtailment of a memorable party, the album finishes with Important; its uphill beat and piano forcing a complete change which hijacks the former frivolity.
But that doesn’t detract from the satisfying sense that Maps & Atlases have produced an album with some real bite. It’s a collection of tracks that needs proper digestion in order to pick through the intricate layering and amalgam of styles that mix the band’s longstanding math influences with a clear inclination towards African rhythms. The fact it aligns with other current North American artists certainly shouldn’t detract; it should serve as a reminder that there’s more to music across the Atlantic.