If you thought you’d never smile listening to math rock, think again. Maps & Atlases make technical virtuosity fun with asymmetrical, galloping rhythms and vocals bright enough to sunburn The Beach Boys. Perch Patchwork could be this year’s most esoteric album fit for a summer road trip. Songs such as “Israeli Caves” feature swinging Soweto-inspired guitar riffs and percussions that chug to a train’s pace.
Maps & Atlases released a few EPs before Perch Patchwork, their debut full-length, and the band has done a fair amount of growing up in the meantime. Those early releases were classic math-rock, typified by busy guitar lines borrowed from 90s bands like Don Caballero. Maps & Atlases are far from the only band from Chicago to use that sound as a starting point, but they're one of the few to try and move it forward and successfully translate it into pop songs.
Maps & Atlases’ second EP, You and Me and the Mountain, found the band moving in a lighter direction than the mathematical frenzy of their first EP Trees, Swallows, Houses. Their first full-length sees them fully morphed into a sophisticated indie pop group. Perch Patchwork is a bold debut, filled with bombastic arrangements, twisting modal progressions, and percussive layers.
Serviceable indie rock tunes... It’s great when boundlessly inventive bands go into hiding for a couple of years and then come out with something mindblowing, less so when the results are this… standard. There’s nothing immediately wrong with ‘Perch Patchwork’ – ‘Living Decorations’ and ‘Israeli Caves’ are serviceable indie rock tunes, and ‘Was’ is a teasingly low-key ditty – but the core of the album is eminently forgettable.
Chicago has fallen in love with local boys made good Maps & Atlases, but it remains to be seen whether their full length debut Perch Patchwork will woo the rest of us. Mixing intricate fretwork, nimble rhythms, and tart melodies, the album serves up 12 treats that are almost too sweet to eat. The foursome has always trod perilously close to self-conscious twee limbo (a common enough fate for ex-art student bands) though the grime of Chicago’s underground scene has done a decent job of cutting their postures with a little sweat.
When critics start throwing around terms like “math rock,” a lot of fans back off. Still, Chicago’s Maps & Atlases manage to make their songs both technically sound and pleasant sounding. Equal parts lo-fi folk and hi-tech looping riffs, they conjure the ethereal softness of Grizzly Bear and the measured madness of Battles. Part of what makes Maps & Atlases successful may be the presence of an additional, more organic instrument in Dave Davison’s voice.