Isolation in snow-covered upstate New York, a guest vocalist picked up in a karaoke bar, the producer’s gear stolen outside his apartment and a track that not only provides the albums best moment, but threatens to completely sabotage it: all in a days work for the Manchester trio Mazes in the recording of their third LP, ‘Wooden Aquarium‘.
The track in question comes in the form of the album’s second number, “Salford”. Its a good place to start as it distills everything that is great about Mazes into a little over two minutes: hypnotic guitars, an obdurate bass line and a beat that doesn’t let up. What is something of an new, and welcome, addition is the display of cool indifference in the vocals of both Jack Cooper and Heather Strange, dropping disconnected, partly ad-libbed phrases like ‘I am an honorary mention/I have hidden layers’ and ‘I am a punctual greeting/I am cool’. Cooper may well have always been at his best when he’s not trying to sound too in ernest, but there is an acerbic bite here that hasn’t been present in the past.
The problem is that, striking on something of such singular brilliance as “Salford”, the rest of the album can, in places, sound like an exercise in playing catch-up. Tracks like opener, “Astigmatism“, “Mineral Springs” and “Stamford Hill” are, whilst not in anyway bad songs, too close a tribute to the Greater Manchester borough to not draw comparison. However, to simply leave it there would be unfair. The occasions when the band depart from this formula inevitably are the ones that leave the most lasting impression. ‘RIPP’ is spoken word over pulsing drums and bass, a spacey hangover from the Krautrock influence of second album ‘Ores and Minerals’ that cant help but recall the extended intro to Sonic Youth’s “Teenage Riot“. The fuzzy, staccato stabs of “Vapour Trails” sound uniquely ominous combined with Coopers’ languid vocals. “It Is What It Is” is a modern take on the 90’s baggy psychedelia that once originated in the boys’ Manchester home and has seen a resurgence thanks to the likes of Towns. “Universal Me” is a weary, blurry eyed, melancholic stare as “Manchester spills into the streets” that shows off, perhaps more than any track on the album, Coopers songwriting and unique ear for a melody.
Given the circumstances surrounding the recording of the album it might have been expected that the band would delve further into the territory of their last full length and the mini-album ‘Better Ghosts’, perhaps self-indulgently following every whim that might of come from an isolated recording environment. Instead the album is their most cohesive yet. Producer Jonathan Schenke pulls the same trick he did with Parquet Courts ‘Light Up Gold’, the album sounding like it was recording in one sitting, the tracks seamlessly rolling from one to another without pausing for breath. As with the Brooklyn-based punks anthem ‘Stoned and Starving’, a song that could have, but for the quality of the rest of the album, completely overshadowed it. ‘Salford’ has the potential to do the same on ‘Wooden Aquarium’, thankfully, Mazes do enough elsewhere to stop that from being the case.