Review: The Mother Matrix
Experience the vibrant musical colors of The Nathaniel Johnstone Band's latest offering.
The Nathaniel Johnstone Band's been on a roll these past few years. Their previous two releases were full-on concept albums, the first on fairy tales, the second Greek mythology. Each was widely praised—and deservedly so.
We now welcome their third album, The Mother Matrix. Are their gears showing signs of grinding down? Not a chance. Here, the theme is looser, but no less expressive. A tight, eleven track collection, The Mother Matrix is perhaps their most personal work yet. Inspired by a painting by band member (and phenomenal artist and dancer) Laura "Tempest" Zakroff, the album weaves in bits of science, steampunk, existentialism, social commentary, and plain ol' love.
"Seven Veils" kicks off the album, slippery bass guitar and Tom Coyne's slithering hi-hat working sensual magic. It's a classic NJB track, and a great album opener that showcases Kate "Dogwood" McKnight's vocals.
The NJB performing an extended, live version of "Seven Veils".
Multi-instrumentalist Johnstone and Dogwood trade off lead vocal duties throughout the album. He's in the forefront on "All in All". The song pours forth optimism by the bucketful, its cheerful perspective on life's troubles drawing smiles from me on each listen. They Might Be Giants fans will find much to like here in its catchy disposition.
"The Spark" is a punk-glam explosion, the fever dream of a mad scientist who's spent the past year listening to The Rocky Horror Picture Show in his laboratory. "There's science to do!" Dogwood cries as she blows the doors off the song, Johnstone's guitar driving home the insanity.
In "Little Star", the band paints an ode to the enigmatic, inspirational musician David Bowie, painting him lyrics such as, "Glistening in nighttime London dew, a delicate thing, a colorful youth." "The alien man upon the stairs," was ahead of his time, a point Dogwood drives home when she sings, "In a dream I saw my future, and it's hard to admit, 'How did he know?'" It's a very moving tribute.
Johnstone's on lead vocals for the next four tracks. His vocals, already very good on his first two releases, continue to get better and better with each album. He's got an earnest integrity to his delivery that tells you he means what he says.
"Please tell me, what is this life?" he asks on "Mother Matrix (Part 1)", the poignant, philosophical title track where a mechanized being ponders its own consciousness and origins. The subsequent track, "Traveling", takes us along on a psychedelic journey through memories and the fourth dimension.
The planet Mars has been headlining in the media lately, from liquid water discoveries, rover exploration, The Martian, and the proposed Mars One one-way ticket to the red planet. On "One Way Trip to Mars", Johnstone and crew playfully-yet-fatalistically riff on the Mars One concept, cheerfully singing, "You can share my last breaths, and I can share yours... on a planet inhabited entirely by robots." It's a whimsically grim tale, another one for the TMBG fans.
Johnstone shows his sarcastic side in "Why Reason?", an airy-but-bitter commentary on the twisted state of world affairs. It turns benevolent creeds on their heads through lyrics such as, "Destroy thy neighbor," "Compassion is for the weak," and "Brother kill thy brother over books long out of date." The chorus taunts the purveyors' of such misguided ideas with the simple question: "Why reason? It's so hard to do." Hear, hear, Brother Johnstone. Why is it so damn hard, indeed?
We return to a heavier sound and a front-and-center Dogwood on "Going Gone". Calling this song "motivational" would be like calling the Graf Zeppelin "big". It's a kickass, energetic track that's sure to make its way on to many dance and workout playlists. "This is no dry run...," Dogwood sings. "You only get one spin around the sun."
"The Crossroads (Part 3)" leads off with martial drums and bass and chilling background vocals, giving rise to a song which could be a cousin to "Stone Woman" off their previous release. We close out with the brief and slinky-sweet "On the Beach", an acoustic reflection on Johnstone and Tempest's relationship (if I'm not mistaken, I believe they were married by the sea).
Nathaniel Johnstone Band fans and newcomers will find much to love on The Mother Matrix. The band's continual stylistic and thematic leaps from track to track always keep things fresh to the ears and the mind. Ponder life's meaning? Rock your face off? Question the state of the world? Dance 'til your feet hurt? This album can make you do all that and more.
For fans of: They Might Be Giants, Aurelio Voltaire, Eli August.