Mazes are the refined progeny of a collective sound that spans a generation and the great blue sea – and it’s this heritage that makes their full-length debut, A Thousand Heys, both an imperfect, but superb, album.
It’s arguably since the likes of Danny And The Dressmakers started banging together some homemade notes in late ’70s Britain that the low-fi rumbling of the DIY scene has been making its bumbling way across the Atlantic. It’s done it more times than Simon Cowell – but while his mission to Auto-Tune the soul out of every living organism has seen him nearly collapse with a pop-schmultz–induced coronary, the sound, and ethos, of DIY retains a healthy heartbeat. And the juxtaposition of those two cultural poles shows exactly why – because the point here, genuinely, is that success isn’t based on the numbers, and DIY revels in that. Indeed, there’s been neither a pay-day nor a hey-day for much of this decade-spanning output, perhaps aside from the feted era of Pavement and the US-alt scene of the early ’90s, and even those bands eschewed the mainstream for the most part. It’s a reflection not of a failed genre, but from its chief protagonists accepting, and embracing, their own imperfections as symbiotic with their cause. And because that’s possibly the only defence against the relentless homogenising that comes from trying to make pop from culture, it’s the exact reason that this music can manage to be both shambolic and invigorating in the same instant, and swerve from slackjawed to awed in one muffled and crackly beat.
A Thousand Heys gives exactly that first impression – one of a band doing things gloriously on the hoof. It’s an affable shambles akin to stumbling through the door with ready-meals two minutes before your parents arrive for tea. Affable because, for all its rough edges, a precocious energy yaps at you from every track, and the whole thing is so teeming with ideas, you’re never more than five second from a hook. Opener Go Betweens is a punchy case in point – two minutes of riffs and peppy vocals are over before the album draws breath, but they return in the similarly sunny Most Days, and again in Summer Hits. The upbeat feel echoes genre-mates Spectrals – both are so determinedly catchy that the messiness makes no difference. So what if the drums sound like a man with a box of cymbals falling down some slightly irregularly placed stairs? Neil Robinson is no Phil Collins but… well, there really is no ‘but’ there. Take it as a compliment that no one would ever apply the epithet “sloppy loveliness” to In The Air Tonight.
Mazes are low-fi cheerleaders. There’s no doubting their raw talent – it just seems they’re deliberately keeping it raw. Indeed, faced with the choice for recording location of uptown New York, or the refined haven of Sigur Rós‘ Icelandic retreat, they opted for box number three: a boat moored in east London. Indie, much? Yet, you can’t imagine the warming fuzz of Cenetaph, or Boxing Clever’s Pavement / Strokes hybrid, having any of their character if a slick-haired producer had come within 50 miles of them. That open desire to protect the ideas from overengineering, that deliberately analogue-era choice, is what unites Mazes to the collective – for while comparisons to Male Bonding or Yuck seem to miss the gloomier overtones of either of these, they all share a musical joie de vivre. One that reminds us why this whole scene is still shuffling along in the post-noughties world.
Yet that also sets the bar. Engaging though A Thousand Heys is, eschewing tight production will always let in some weaker moments. Bowie Knives is insubstantial and dull, while Death House and Til I’m Dead are both classically low-fi without being classics – achieving a sumptuous dirge, but failing to find a focus for it. So, while Mazes bear comparisons to both their heritage and peers, any exalted comparisons have to come with an admission that they’re not they’re yet. Is A Thousand Heys a seminal milestone for the genre? No. But is it the best thing that Mazes will write? No.
There’s two things this album makes clear instead: Mazes are a band who stay true to what they love, and they have a massive box of ideas they’ve yet to unpack – see their Record Store Day release of 30 offcuts as evidence. This promise is what makes Mazes superb. A Thousand Heys isn’t perfect, but start here and see where they take you.