I will say straight out that you’ll need to listen to Medical Maps’ That Is That multiple times before you can fully grasp everything that’s going on with this release.
I’m not saying, however, that the album’s fourteen tracks are inaccessible. Far from it. The band makes you work though. You can’t set back and treat this like any other humdrum alternative offering. Medical Maps’ songwriting demands a constant level of engagement and shows listeners such an abundance of “faces” that your first encounter with their music may be a little dizzying.
The lyrics for That is That’s songs are wild. Akin to something like Beat poetry filtered through a modern sensibility, the frequent impressionistic bent of the writing keeps thematic consistency while embracing ambiguity all the way down the line. Medical Maps rarely spell out things for the listener and leave much open to interpretation. It enhances the listening experience, however, rather than leaving you adrift in willful obscurity.
“Last of the Icons” is an excellent introduction for newcomers to the band. Its varied texture illustrates Medical Maps’ willingness, if not eagerness, to confound listener expectations while still delivering a satisfying experience. They kick off the track as a rambunctious rocker and you feel in familiar territory but take everything topsy during the song’s second half. It practices a little musical sleight of hand as well as it leans far closer to being an instrumental rather than a lyric-driven performance.
Cacophonous rock continues hitting listeners with the second track “Riptide”. The wall of sound they invoke with this track has several subtle variations in tempo buried within its arrangement. It’s a shrewd move as, without such touches, it would risk sounding rather monotonous and one-note. Shoegaze influences permeate “The Dog Door on Mars”. Medical Maps’ propensity for unusual titles isn’t a gimmick as it reflects the slightly hallucinatory approach to language characterizing many of the band’s lyrics. I’m taken by the stately gait the arrangement achieves.
“Two Minute Man” is an instrumental and burns with energetic verve from the outset. They are a tighter unit for this song than the aforementioned tracks. Paring saxophone with the band’s core guitar-fueled lineup fuels Medical Maps’ musical attack with added brio that deepens its impact. “Last Manifesto Edgewise” trims the saxophone from the band in favor of a four-piece approach. It results in one of the most direct and hard-hitting moments on That is That while continuing to explore the same artistic ethos defining the collection thus far. The rhythm section of drummer Ethan Herschman and bassist Greg Mahoney are crucial to the song’s success.
They adopt a similar line for the late album track “Backroads to Japan”. Afshin Beheshti’s vocals are a consistent presence throughout the entirety of the album, and he’s joined here, as elsewhere on many album tracks, by multiple backing vocalists. The piano contributions to this song lighten its otherwise straightforward rock pummeling and there’s a handful of ingenious turns in the arrangement. Medical Maps’ That is That crackles with creativity and, despite an eye-popping fourteen songs, never exhaust your patience. I found it rewarding at every turn.
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