by Chad Jewett
Pointillism: (noun) the theory or practice in art of applying small strokes or dots of color to a surface so that from a distance they blend together (Merriam-Webster).
I’m beginning with that definition simply because it’s the most purely direct way of talking about the aesthetic of Art Contest and the ethos of Math Major. The album feels like a collection of exhaustively placed particles of tone that only wash together into something larger with a bit of distance. As a record, Math Major (a wonderfully evocative title for this band’s way with aural geometry and algebra) is exceptional in the ways in which you can pick out each pristine gesture, each lightest touch. Rather than surround you or blanket you, the prickly, thin-brush guitars and worried-over, arithmetical drums stand poised in space, intangibly clean and untouched. They hang on a museum wall, speaking in the middle distance. The precision of the band’s sound – both its brightened, post-rock scattered-ness and its tidy studio exactitude – is geometric; you can picture these sounds drawn out on graph paper. It’s emo that’s been plugged into a computer-aided design program.
But there is joy in this careful line work. Like Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Art Contest is somehow able to translate an overwhelming degree of meticulousness into something kinetic and radiant. Album opener “Banana Boat” bundles the controlled chaos of Cap’n Jazz (an obvious antecedent that I’m sure Art Contest hears all. the. time.), the jazz-by-way-of-indie of Pele, and the pastel Caribbean lilt of early Islands, wrapping bands of major key curlicues around stilted Dadaist shouts like “sound of / sharp wail /broken / black nails / punch!” (this absurdism will reach its apex on “Shish Kabob.” An example: “Shish / Sub / Par / Sunburnt / Frostbit.”). The delivery is as block-like as that punctuation would have it seem; but paired with the generous, if idiosyncratic, melodicism of the songs ever-cycling guitars, it all sounds exuberant rather than fussed over. Art Contest is a band that finds fun in ramming hard against any kind of first instinct. The band’s knack for counter-intuition defines “Washing Machine,” a song of loping arpeggios and long-form harmonies, built around an even simpler tone-poem: “who’s home? / who’s home? / open your door.” Oddly enough, the scant narratives don’t feel like afterthoughts (even if they should). Instead, like the rest of the sounds here, the brief lyrical missives simply end up sounding carefully chosen, as if all Art Contest really needed to do was ask a question. They certainly seem to enjoy open ended-ness more than conclusion.
If Math Major is playing around with its own title as subject matter, then our main arithmetic is subtraction, as the poetic brevity of “Washing Machine” falls away to the silence of “Jungle Book,” a gorgeous instrumental of gentle rises and swoons, punctuated by storming bursts of percussion. Elsewhere, “Misty Flip” uncoils in intricate waves of coiled guitar so densely wound that one has trouble imagining a melody that could possibly skate along its surface, let alone words. “WAV” is slightly less tangled (although notions of straight-forwardness are very, very relative here), pairing another brief narrative (the entirety: “cut the teeth and watch it fade to grey / guess we’ll have it your way”) to propulsive jazz chords and a more assiduously forward-oriented beat. It’s also one of the album’s less interesting songs, as if you can feel the band rejecting anything that comes too easy or scans too much like naturalism rather than cubism. “Tripp Pants” and “Sugar Bay” find a way to charge the near-traditionalism of “WAV” with the album’s earlier adventurism; melodies announce themselves, but do so while clinging to cycling time-warped drums and rills of free-scale guitars that split their time between complex chord sheets and Afro-pop trickles.
Art Contest is moving in an aesthetic that both invests in, and challenges, a swiftly calcifying version of emo. It’s a dangerous time to sound youthful, off-kilter, and too smart for your own good. The off-timed bursts and back-winding guitars on Math Major have come to be the lingua-franca of today’s post-hardcore, to the extent where even the radiant color dots of this album can feel like paint drops in a bucket. Yet, despite the pristine aura of the album, Math Major seems to move away from the isolationism running like a hidden current beneath much of this brand of emo. Instead, it seems to be striving for a very real sense of fun, although it may be the kind of fun you’d glean from multiplying random numbers on a calculator. But by orienting their careful, exhaustively precise constructions toward giddy surrealism rather than thorny obtuseness, Art Contest have begun to de-familiarize what this sound normally does, and how it normally works. It might have been more accurate if this band were called Art Major. If this album were called Math Contest.