There are only really two things to say about Marzy Maddox’s “Catching Up To Massimo,” and we’re going to get to the good stuff first. It’s impeccable. No, but, really. It’s impeccable. The production is so slick that ice wouldn’t even be able to walk on it. The playing on all ends is impressively technical. The creativity is nothing short of remarkable. And the presentation is truly next level — especially for music that has the “local” tag.
You don’t have to look further than the opening track to establish all of this. “Mankitsu Happening” blackens your eyes, bloodies your nose and knocks out your teeth. And yeah, Matt Earp’s guitar is menacing and angular while Phoenix Johnson’s vocals are as pristine as ever, begging to be placed on top of a band who regularly poses for Alternative Press covers. But the true hero here is Anup Sastry and his outrageously spectacular drumming.
Through the pretty guitar work of the verses and the unexpected success of the singing tradeoffs, Sastry’s inventive performances — not just here, but throughout the entire album — stand tall above what surrounds it. The guy is a beast, a gem in Frederick’s always-growing list of exceptional musicians. And while the two core members here ought to be commended for their gigantic leap forward in songwriting — Sastry works on this record as a hired gun — it’s impossible not to notice precisely how much flair the drummer brings to the duo’s equation.
Still, the kids are all right, too. If 2015’s “The Tragic Fate Of Arthur Volunte” was a trip through high school, these 10 tracks skipped college and are already working on their Masters. “Ragnarok,” one of the set’s best songs, single-handedly proves how far Johnson and Earp have come between records. From the backing ba-ba-ba’s around the minute-and-a-half mark, to the smart, tasteful use of falsetto, it feels like an entirely new band three years later. Fast-forward to the final 50 seconds and hear the sounds of maturity as a “Close your eyes/I swear it won’t hurt/Free yourself/Of all this anger” chant commences and arenas become the only place left that these guys can go.
Other highlights come when the band’s pop sensibility steps forward. “Killing You,” driven by a sugar-y guitar riff, has fun with dichotomy as the uptempo, bright feel is offset by a chorus that explains the narrator here will be killing “you and yours tonight.” “Towers Of Midnight” provides some of the same, inescapable guitar work and all. Even the vocal growls feel more grown up whenever they appear. Throw it on top of a crisp pop-punk groove and you have the band at its most concise.
Which begins us to the only other thing to say about Marzy Maddox’s “Catching Up To Massimo”: It needs an editor.
Songs with movements are great. And prog-leaning songs with multiple movements are even better. Without question, those are the things for which this band is aiming. They want to be Coheed And Cambria, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem, however, surfaces when it feels like Marzy Maddox is being expansive for expansive’s sake. Or, in other words, there are tracks that really do feel like ideas for three or four completed songs within the fabric of one song. Throw on the CD, never check to see when the number changes, and you’ll wonder why there aren’t at least 20 titles on the back of the cover.
One of the biggest offenders is the title track. While it stretches to 9:46, there are three different song ideas that show themselves within the first five minutes. Then, when you swear everything has finally concluded around the eight-and-a-half minute mark, the last 1:15 kicks through the door in ways that can only be described as pointless. Such is the trick when it comes to crafting this kind of music: Through-lines aren’t easy to come by anyway, but when they are so blatantly ignored, it becomes a matter of the fine line between indulgence and de rigueur. One is annoying; the other is tasteful.
“The Storming Of Ban’tiel” suffers slightly from the same issue, but not until the final movement, and that’s only because the body of the track fades to black so convincingly. The closing instrumental section is pretty, but fleshed out, it could be an even more affecting composition. “Betting Halos In Heaven” and the aforementioned “Mankitsu Happening” each share similar flaws, though in their cases, the fake-outs aren’t the most egregious element. Rather, it’s the glimmer of potential that each individual section embodies. None of them are bad ideas; it’s just easy to want to hear more of some of them.
None of this is to say that “Catching Up To Massimo” isn’t worth your time, because holy Moses, it certainly is — especially if you’re a fan of the pop-metal-prog-punk thing that has carved out its own prominent space in the rock world. And especially if you fancy yourself a musician, it’s undeniable that you’re going to find a slew of things to value in the performances, ambition and production here. Plus, considering where Phoenix Johnson and Matt Earp were three years ago, it’s downright scary to think where they could be three years from now.
Because once they learn to settle down, let go and embrace a sliver of simplicity, those Halos In Heaven ought to be theirs from now until forever — and ever, amen.