Maps & Atlases is a band that debuted as a schizophrenic math-rock group, but has slowly been trying to marry their tapping guitars with the melodic structures of folk songs. Their 2010 album Perch Patchwork was an almost perfect combination of hyperactive technical performance and organic songs.
Their latest album Beware and Be Grateful follows the direction laid out by Perch Patchwork but ends up much further away from their roots than ever before. The result is an album that sounds quite boring compared to their typical output, with songs that feel repetitious and tedious.
Maps & Atlases is a band I have been clamouring to see since I first heard their incredible debut EP Trees, Swallows, Houses, but I was a bit disappointed arriving at the Media Club last Monday with the thought of hearing them play mostly their lackluster new tracks.
The difference between live music and recorded music, is that when you watch a live show you are literally doubling the senses through which you take in the experience. I can listen to a record and get a lot out of it, but watching the band play the music just adds a whole extra sense to the experience.
Adding entire dimensions to something can sometimes drastically change your interpretation of that thing, and in the case of Maps & Atlases’ latest album, watching the band play its songs alongside some of their older standbys helped me understand why the new material was still worth getting excited about.
I’ve heard people argue that truly good music should be able to stand up alone on its, well, music… and by all means it should. But when Dave Davison walked up to the stage and started playing “Old & Gray” and I could see what he was actually doing, I was enthralled.
Watching his hands shred the neck of a guitar while he sings out the lyrics to a little folk song is an experience. It almost convinced me that Maps & Atlases just got so good at marrying math rock with folk, that they’ve simply covered up the seams.
Good performance can go a long way to change a piece of music, and Maps & Atlases put on a stellar performance.
Playing under almost complete darkness for the first few songs gave everything a really intimate vibe, until suddenly several tiny triangular objects scattered around the stage started lighting up just as the band went into “The Charm”, a fan favourite that involves gratuitous dancing and gratuitous banging of bass drums.
Each song was played almost perfectly, and this enhanced the appreciation for the ones less known – the band was able to dance around the stage while their fingers danced around their instruments, never once coming close to missing a note.
The new songs actually mixed well into the set, bringing something simpler and more danceable to break up the more noisy and chaotic back catalogue.
If there is a complaint to be had in the performance, it was in the tempo – several songs were played at least 50 percent slower than they are on the albums, which is often the opposite of what happens live. When the songs are played at such a drastically slower pace, it could be really jarring and unenjoyable, but thankfully it only affected a few songs.
While the band mostly stuck to fan favourites and the choice cuts from Beware and Be Grateful, they did have some fun and threw in a few surprises. Halfway through, they played a hilarious version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears, and their encore performance was a drawn-out jam medley that saw them going in and out of various songs from all their albums while exploring a kind of weird that isn’t seen at all on their newest release.
Maps & Atlases is certainly setting course to make themselves more of a math-tinged indie rock outfit, but their background comes through loud and clear in a live performance. The band played with virtuosic precision, energy, and made every song a joy to watch. And I dare say that Dave Davison is one of the most talented guitarists I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.
Regardless of what their next album sounds like, I will make sure to see Maps & Atlases next time they come around, if only to be reminded what near-flawless live musicianship looks like.