by Noel Oxford
The problem with ‘math rock’ as a label is that it’s just not very inspiring. By way of handy contrast, ‘desert rock’ evokes, for example, a battered muscle car cleaving a dusty V8 swathe across sun-baked hardpan, as startled cacti look on. ‘Psychedelic rock’ hurls the mind forward through the third eye, to plummet endlessly through aetheric portals, seeking planes hitherto unexplored, while ‘doom metal’ conjures the frigid wolf-howling bleakness of a Norwegian midnight when the boiler has broken down and the cat’s just piddled on the only blanket. What, conversely, do we think of when we hear ‘math rock’? A square headed man with a molester’s moustache and chalk marks on his crotch mouthing the finer points of algebra into an atmosphere of palpable disinterest. What could be more rock ‘n’ roll?
You can imagine my astonishment then, to discover that as far as Keelhaul’s 2003 long player ‘Subject to Change Without Notice’ is concerned, the label is both surprisingly appropriate and yet still somehow inadequate. What we have here is a vast mosaic of a record, a collection of tessellating fragments, sharp and angular by themselves, gelling into a cohesive whole only when viewed together. It’s a dissonant and challenging album, awkward at times, yet rewarding to repeat customers. Like a grand jumble sale of thick stoner hooks, dissected one from another, extracted with mathematical precision and reassembled into a mellifluous slippery mass that doesn’t stop squirming from one end to the other. It’s as if Karma to Burn got into a three way pub brawl with Electric Magma and Tool, and ended up decorating the snug with most of Maynard James Keenan’s teeth.
Despite Keelhaul boasting two vocalists, there’s barely a lyric in sight, and what few appear are ground out from between one asymmetrical groove millstone sandwiched on top of another; a condiment to the whole package, rather than the main course. Dynamic and tempo shifts abound as the record veers between the scampering and the sludgy, and it doesn’t let up until a good 20 minutes in, when the sudden clean picked guitar tones of ‘HMG’ wash in on a wave of grumbling bass and loose hi-hat, turning the aesthetic completely on its head. It’s gone just as abruptly as it arrives, making way for ‘Tits of War’, a dual-guitar workout that calls to mind ‘Love Thing’ by the Melvins. The two songs back-to-back form a short, three-minute diversion from the main order of business, but serve to contextualise and deepen the rest of what’s here. While the album’s first act is a bona fide spotter’s guide to humongous riffs, the final tracks draw on that short burst of atmosphere to drive the record to its logical conclusion, and the real highlights of the piece are among them.
The sludge is pushed to the fore on ‘Answer the Chicken’, a crunching march down a path that splits the difference between the record’s two principal aesthetics. Meanwhile, ‘Mash the Sandwich’ is a demented hopscotch between three distinct thematic sensibilities; an ambient Kyuss-esque heat haze grafted to a jagged, punky breakout shackled to a blissed-out groove so stoned that it’s making a serious dent in your biscuit stash. Gripping stuff.
What do Keelhaul have to tell us about ‘math rock’? That the label is as inadequate for real world application as its academic namesake. ‘Subject to Change Without Notice’ quite simply just rocks.