Sound — 6
Originally starting as an electronica-inspired side project between former Earthsuit frontman Paul Meany and his drummer friend Darren King, MuteMath would turn into the next main music facet for Meany after Earthsuit broke up. Recruiting guitarist Greg Hill and bassist Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas to turn the project into a fully-fledged indie rock band, their debut self-titled album brought forth a captivating amalgam of influences - spanning from Radiohead, Bloc Party, The Strokes, Silversun Pickups, and even ambient IDM acts like Telefon Tel Aviv - delivered with an admirable force of instrumental skill.
From then on, MuteMath would suffer from fits of both not mixing things up enough and mixing things up too much. With the years following the release of "Mutemath" consisting of unsuccessful songwriting for their follow-up album and band conflicts that nearly resulted in their breakup, their eventual follow-up album, 2009's "Armistice," meagerly attempted to expand upon the band's indie rock style with a bigger usage of synthetic string sections. Their third album, 2011's "Odd Soul," would end up taking a sharp and considerably jarring turn from their indie rock sound and into a blues/garage/funk/psychedelic rock style, which, while still putting forth a great instrumental performance, was clearly an act of chasing the trendy likes of other retro rock revival bands like The Black Keys and Tame Impala.
Now on their fourth album, "Vitals," MuteMath veer back towards their older style of electronica-tinged indie rock, though they travel back that way by a path much different than their earlier albums. Synthesizers take the top position of the sonic hierarchy, leaving the rest of the instrumental roles much more contained. With synthetic drumbeats and analog bass throbs being the main building blocks for rhythms, the previously-lauded skills of King and Mitchell-Cárdenas get very few opportunities to shine. And with lead synth arpeggios being the main source of melodies, guitar lines are near exclusively reduced to palm-muted riffs, which not only all sound the same, but are in similar fashion to Phoenix - a fitting comparison that MuteMath blatantly emulate in the dance rock songs of "Joy Rides" and "Monument."
Expectedly, that's not the only case in which MuteMath spin off someone else's sound in the album. The reserved gear of "Safe If We Don't Look Down" stems from the post rock likes of Mogwai or Faunts, the nu disco flavor of "Best of Intentions" sounds like something from Madeon's "Adventure," and the vocal-less, rock-tinged indietronica of "Bulletproof" sounds quite inspired by Pretty Lights. "Vitals" does hit some high points with MuteMath's new synth-rich recipe, such as the ever-changing synth sounds in the eponymous track, the slow-burning swells in "All I See," and the gospel-esque ballad "Composed," but also breaks intrigue in the meandering ending ballad of "Remain," and the lumbering, dubstep-ish rocker "Used To." But ultimately, the lack of MuteMath's superb instrumental performances in any of these songs is what takes away the most from the album's sound.
Lyrics — 6
Though Meany's written about love and heartache before, all of his lyrics in "Vitals" have him revolving around that subject. From the carefree highs of love in "Monument" and "Safe If We Don't Look Down," and the worth of trudging through the rough patches of love in "Joy Rides" and "Light Up," to the pragmatic disconnection in "Best of Intentions" and the hollow-hearted loneliness in "Stratosphere" and "Used To," Meany covers the general bases throughout the interpersonal spectrum. While he also uses a few cases of recurring symbolism to connect tracks - like the sentiment of not worrying about emotional harm in "Safe If We Don't Look Down" ("We won't ever drown / We're safe if we don't look down") regressing into the lonesome fear of any future emotional harm in "Used To" ("I used to care / I had no fear of falling / I used to never feel like I do now") being connected by the sense of falling - Meany doesn't set the lyrics to a serialized order in the album; a wasted opportunity to punch up the emotional journey of the lyrics even more.
Overall Impression — 5
After the polarizing change in style that MuteMath attempted with "Odd Soul," there may be plenty who will be relieved to know that "Vitals" journeys back towards their realm of indie rock. And though it's duly admirable that this returning style isn't just a direct back-peddling to the glory days of "Mutemath," the new sound they go for in "Vitals" not only has its moments of unimaginative derivation, but it also binds one of the best qualities of MuteMath - their instrumental skills. They took a calculated risk to cast aside their strong suit and fill in the blanks with more synth-driven songwriting, but "Vitals" just isn't able to reach the highest levels of MuteMath's capabilities without that strong suit.