RX Bandits, Mandala
I think I’ve cracked it. It took me a while to get my head around it, but I think the best way to look at RX Bandits isn’t as a reggae+X band — like I’d always instinctively wanted to see them ’til now — but as a damn talented prog-rock band that just happens to pull in reggae, dub, punk, metal, and (yes, definitely) salsa/Latin-tinged rock so it can put together the kind of fiery, many-faceted songs the Bandits want to craft.
I do mean “craft,” by the way; while there’s definitely an organic feel to a lot of the tracks on Mandala, the care and meticulous plotting that went into the music is absolutely evident. Maybe that’s why this works better for me than a lot of hybrids — while the vast majority of bands like this stick Genre A to Genre F willy-nilly, with a superfluous blast of distortion used as glue to (hopefully) make it adhere, RX Bandits’ mashups flow, to the point where I catch myself thinking, “oh, yeah — it makes total sense that the guitars get all wild and noodly right there, right after that drifting, gauzy melody starts to dissolve…”
The comparison that holds in my brain, more than anything else, is to The Police. I don’t mean that these guys are rewriting Outlandos d’Amour or anything here, but rather that they succeed in a similar way with what that band did, melding reggae to funk to rock to whatever else and making it all work as one seamless whole.
All this isn’t to say RX Bandits can do no wrong, of course. “Hearts That Hanker For Mistake,” for one, with its “Under the Bridge” melody shuttling along over roaring guitars, makes me shrug and feels overlong at only 4:30. And while I’m initially intrigued by the funky, murky salsa-psych of “Mientras La Veo Soñar,” I find myself checking my watch and wondering when the next track’ll come on.
When it clicks, though, it really clicks. “It’s Only Another Parsec” throws the prog influences into sharp relief, with sharp-edged guitars carving complex shapes into the soft wood of the song’s rhythm, then shifting and shimmering into spacey trippiness; the track makes me think oddly of late-’90s math-indie-rock stuff like Edsel or No Knife, and it comes as a nice surprise without disrupting the rhythm of the album as a whole. “Hope Is A Butterfly, No Net Its Captor (Virus of Silence),” too, forages further afield and ends up drifting and gorgeously, warmly psychedelic, like Dorothy wandering through the beautiful field of soporific poppies and trying half-heartedly not to fall under their influence.
“March of the Caterpillar” is subtle and muted, with a windswept, desolate feel but lyrics that aim to uplift, and opener “My Lonesome Only Friend” starts off similarly low-key but revs up to stomping, semi-metallic rock with fiery, Santana-esque guitars. The metallic guitar lines reappear at random throughout the disc, particularly on “Breakfast Cat,” but there they veer back towards the prog-rock thing once again.
While guitarist/vocalist Matt Embree does well throughout, he hits a real high note with “White Lies,” where he swears not to fall back into the same old traps and status-quo fibs we all tell ourselves. His voice cracks and boils over with outrage and bitterness, like he knows how much damage a little looking-away can do if everybody does it. He gets near it again (albeit in more of a controlled fashion) on album-ender “Bring Our Children Home Or Everything Is Nothing,” where his voice takes hold of pretty much the only singalong chorus on the album and drags it skyward, soaring up to the heavens over the defiant, blazing almost Hendrix-like rock going on below. As befits the album’s title, Mandala as a whole sounds like a musical meditation of sorts, a critical, introspective look at the world and the chaotic, often-downward spin we who live on this big globe seem to find ourselves.