Mass Shivers Contoured Heat

[Licking River; 2010]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: experimental neo-prog
Others: Liars, Big Business

After completing their ambitious self-titled paean to progressive rock in 2005, Mass Shivers decided to push the envelope even further with 2007’s Ecstatic Eyes Grow Glossy, a wilder and more elaborate exploration of experimental neo-prog. Filled with heavy, grinding guitars and breakneck twists and turns, their sophomore effort drew comparisons to artists as varied as Captain Beefheart and The Melvins. Indeed, placing their songs in such an abstract context was a calculated move that allowed the band to flaunt their proclivity for whimsical songwriting, which was esoteric and simply befuddling at times. The few who “got it” formed a small but loyal following for the Chicago band.

That same happy group of loyalists will delight in Contoured Heat’s expansion in many of the same directions. Mass Shivers again eschew the platitudes of conventional song structures for another selection of sprawling tracks that deliver more unexpected bends and uncanny changes in style. This time, however, they sacrifice some of their trademark capriciousness in the name of flow, and the results yield a better album overall. If that sounds less adventurous, then rest assured: with tracks like opener “More Bumper Than a Body Shop” and “Outsider Erotica,” accusing the band of playing it safe would be a misstatement.

The latter song opens with the tight sound of a guitar being plucked like a banjo and vocalist Brett Sova singing, “She wants to be with you, man/ You out your mind, your soul, your body.” While his falsetto provides lyrics that are mostly unintelligible, the natural emotion with which he sings them looms over the ringing guitars like another instrument, adding a melodic dimension to the underlying chaos of chord changes and thrumming bass. He often sounds more like Yes’ Jon Anderson than Beefheart’s Don Vliet, and that works well here, because on Contoured Heat, it seems that Mass Shivers have moved beyond mere Beefheart impersonations to fully embrace their prog influences.

With this newfound maturity, the band has also discovered the restraint needed to leave its more stunning moments untouched. “Dusk” opens with gentle acoustic guitar phrases that capture the rapturous feeling of a golden sunset. On previous efforts, Mass Shivers would have taken perverse pleasure in twisting such beauty into something fractured, but here, they wisely forgo diluting the song’s instrumental clarity with additional clutter. As a result, the temperate piece provides a perfect segue into album standout “Beneath the Sand,” a plaintive ballad that renders an ideal counterbalance to the noisy mischief conjured up to that point.

Building on Mass Shivers’ earlier forays in neo-progressive territory, Contoured Heat presents a more seasoned version of their usual mayhem. Thankfully, they haven’t sacrificed any of the enjoyment.

Links: Mass Shivers - Licking River

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