“Be it hereby resolved: Christian rock … doesn’t."
That was the debate topic during a meeting of the University of Georgia’s Phi Kappa Literary Society one Thursday night fourteen years ago. I vividly remember sitting in one of the movie theater-style fold-down seats in the upper chamber of Phi Kappa Hall, listening intently to the resolution and finding its premise essentially unassailable. “Christian ‘rock’”: an appellation that cursed all unfortunate enough to bear it—a genre distinguished primarily by its slick production values and saccharine lyrics—and an epithet sometimes hurled derisively at legitimate rock bands such as U2 when they got too preachy. Yes, to my ears it seemed indeed true that Christian rock … didn’t.
But that was before I heard Mute Math.
To be fair, it should be stated that this band insists that it is not, in fact, Christian rock, and even went so far as to sue its record company when the label attempted to promote it as such. Nevertheless, the band’s roots lie squarely in the movement. Lead singer Paul Meany previously played in the fondly remembered, explicitly Christian outfit Earthsuit, and many of Mute Math’s most devoted followers were also adherents of its antecedent band. And while Mute Math itself does not declare its spiritual affiliation explicitly, much of its output possesses an undeniable religious component.
Yet Mute Math does not sound like any Christian band I’ve ever heard. As a unit, it possesses an impressively broad palette—mixing punk, electronica, jazz, arena rock, funk, avant-garde, and that other much-maligned genre: progressive rock. Granted, the breadth of this melting pot is not always apparent on the albums, which can sometimes fall prey to overproduction.
The group’s most recent effort—Armistice—comes roaring out of the gate with two excellent tracks: “The Nerve” and “Backfire,” but by the time we hit “Spotlight” (an absolute stunner live), we are drowning in melodramatic reverb, Pro Tools cut-and-paste, and the type of herky-jerky filter effects that U2 already pushed to the breaking point on Zooropa sixteen years ago.
That’s a shame because Paul Meany has a great voice just begging to be liberated from all the knob twiddling, and the band can play just fine without being run through the Mac sausage grinder. It makes me wish Steve Albini (legendary producer of The Pixies and Nirvana) could get a hold of them.
But take a look at any You Tube clip of these guys in concert. They are on fire, taking their clean-cut audience into decidedly uncharted territory night after night, subverting previously radio-friendly pop tunes with bursts of incendiary improvisation. Onstage, Mute Math has more in common with King Crimson than Jars of Clay.
It appears that the critics are finally taking notice—Alternative Press recently declared Mute Math the “#1 band you must see live before you die.” But the band initially had some trouble with the secular media, because of that pesky religious background.
A 2006 live review in Seattlest exemplifies what the group was up against. “[We] had heard nasty rumors … that New Orleans-based Mute Math was, in fact, a Christian rock band,” it begins. “At first, we didn’t know whether or not to believe it.”
Oh, the horror! The reviewers seem to give this dirty little ‘secret’ the same gravity as Gunter Grass’s revelation of his SS past a few years back.
Of the show itself, the writers grudgingly concede, “(T)he band put on a solid show, even though their style of music isn’t really our thing.” The rest of the review focuses on the Christian question, and seems to take issue with the fact that the band’s audience follows proper hygiene and has the audacity to take in a rock ‘n’ roll gig while sober.
As condescending as this all sounds, the tone of the piece is exactly in line with my own previous prejudice toward the Christian rock genre, and it underscores the wisdom of the band’s decision to distance itself from that world. The members of Mute Math have made the correct assumption that their Christian audience will come along with them anyway—and, who knows, maybe the transcendent beauty and mystery of the music will inspire some of their new listeners to dig deeper for the inspiration behind the hooks.
Mute Math now stands at a crossroads. It can take the well-worn path of “arena rock” and assume U2’s mantle quite comfortably. Or (and this is what I’m hoping for) it can follow the experimental, envelope-stretching impulses of its prog-rock epic “Burden,” wherever those might lead. That would make for a very exciting band, in my book.
But either way, I’m glad Mute Math are out there
. These guys have managed to distill all of rock ‘n’ roll’s most adventurous, liberating qualities into their music while keeping their souls intact. Now that’s alternative.
—Robert Dean Lurie