Review: Mustard Gas and Roses, Becoming

Mustard Gas and Roses has finally come into its own after years as a side project for guitarist Michael Gallagher during his tenure in the seminal, now-defunct post-metal group Isis. I initially wanted to review MGR’s new record, Becoming, completely without reference to Isis at all. For some reason I had convinced myself that making comparisons was a cheap and hacky way to eat up column space, and that I should evaluate MGR on its own merits for fairness. My biggest single obstacle to this goal was actually listening to Becoming. The record invites you to think about Isis every twenty seconds or so; practically song is either an homage or a reaction to Isis, which made it hard for me to come up with reasons why I shouldn’t mention them at all. Clearly Gallagher doesn’t mind the comparison; he must realize it comes with the territory of being in a celebrated and genre-defining band. Even if I could still justify my original choice, I’ve already mentioned Isis more than I had set out to do, so I may as well press on.

What I can tell you is that MGR has Isis’s DNA in its cells, but is phenotypically distinct. Where Isis’s records were shiny and bright even in its heaviest moments, MGR goes for a lo-fi, rumbly aesthetic. Isis’s sly, unobtrusive, fractally expanding song mutations are gone, replaced with songs containing clearly denotated sections of comparible length and easily delineated motifs. Isis’s notorious meandering song lengths are no more; most of the songs on Becoming are under five minutes and get to the point in a third of that time. There are no Isis-like odd time signatures or jazzlike drum punches on weird beats – polyrhythms are almost gone (with the notable exception of “Threshhold”) leaving drummer Sasha Popovic plenty of room for well-worn but exciting fill patterns.

The two acts also use space in a different way – Isis had a lot of discrete parts that ranged across a wide spectrum of tones and textures, keeping everything crisp and distinct, before expanding to a huge, implacable wall during the climaxes. MGR does the opposite, keeping its instruments fuzzier around the edges and smashing them into the same sonic space before separating a guitar from the pack to soar above the rhythm during the climaxes. Vocals are largely absent, too, which turns out to be a positive– Gallagher makes a stab at singing on “Becoming”, but his vocal affect is as flat and colorless as an all-flour pancake.

Yet this sort of simplification, this smoothing out of Isis’s frilly edges, shouldn’t be seen as a step backward, because Gallagher hangs some fresh and intriguing stuff on the denuded skeleton of his former act. You’ll still get all of Isis’s most recognizable elements, the highly mobile bass lines, drums dark and pondering and topped with broiling cymbals, but where you once found odd jazzlike meters and brain-diddling chord voicings, you instead get a humanizing infusion of earlier genre influences. “Becoming”, for example, centers itself around a soft-strummed, brooding folk pattern that lends the song a mournful air. “Rise” has a definite country-western feel to it, with a jangly honky-tonk guitar lead that sounds really slick and cool in a Chet Atkins kind of way. “Let It Roll” has touches of bendy, dobro-like lead technique reminiscent of George Harrison. Becoming will also really sit well with those listeners who enjoy a good pounding riff. The lack of obligation to be all twiddly and proggy all the time leaves MGR room to really lean on a riff with all their weight in a way that Isis never could, which they do to great effect on“The Flood” and “As One”.

The overall experience is one that’s perhaps simpler, less expansive than Isis in its most flowery moments, but one more connected to primal humanity, one that lends itself not to weird flights to misty mental vistas, as Isis used to, but evocations of prosaic sadness, plain beauty, and unadorned resolve. While they’ll probably never escape from Isis’s shadow entirely, MGR has really set themselves up with plenty of room to grow into their own sound. I look forward to hearing more from them in the future. Isis.

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