Cult following

Warming up to The Ice Arena
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  September 6, 2006

060908_cultmaze_main
GATHER ROUND: Collective Cult.

If you’re in Nashville and you play on somebody else’s record, you’re a session musician. If you do it in Portland, you’re just like everybody else. If you’re doing a pop-rock record, call in Spencer Albee and go record with Jon Wyman. If you’re doing a jangledy indie rock record, call in the Extendo-Ride All Stars.

This latter crew debuted with some shows in 2001, Jay Lobley, Peet Chamberlain, and Joe Lops playing musical chairs on stage, with the basic aesthetic being whoever wrote the song gets to play guitar. That crew, with Brandon Davis, then produced the excellent You Are at the Top Level, You Can Not Go up Another Level, released by Pigeon Records in 2002, where they displayed a wide repertoire of musical genres and generally impressed with their songwriting ability.

Lops followed a photographic career out of town, but Chamberlain, Lobley, and Davis stuck around, hooking up with the likes of Andrew Barron, Sydney Bourke, Jeremy Alexander, Aaron Hautula, and Casey McCurry in bands like An Evening With, Diamond Sharp, Satellite Lot, Isodora, Phantom Buffalo, and Esprit de Corps, part of a tight community of indie-pop/rock musicians alternately lining up behind varied and sundry songwriters.

Eventually, says Barron, Lobley “decided he wanted a band for his material and he asked the three of us [Barron, Chamberlain, and Hautula] to help him out.” The result was the Funeral, but that was the name of some metal band, so now it’s Cult Maze, who managed to release a very interesting full-length earlier this summer, The Ice Arena, recorded with Marc Bartholomew last year.

All of that is to say that this is Lobley’s record, but it is informed by years of collaborations and co-bills, and the sound is very familiar to those who’ve become fond of a certain sect of musicians in town who are fond of this jangledy indie sound.

But what if jangledy indie pop doesn’t jangle, but rather sort of buzzes and groans? What if Architecture in Helsinki and Arcade Fire decided to dress themselves like Pavement for Halloween? The result might be something like Cult Maze’s 10 songs here, swimming in ’80s nostalgia while dressed in lo-fi ripped jeans and Goodwill T-shirts.

Remember that lo-fi sound I was all excited about that Marc Bartholomew carved out for Ruler of the Raging Main? Well, it works to lesser effect here — there’s nothing wrong with the sound, per se, but the melodies Lobley crafts suffer without a crispness, and the lyrics are largely lost in some of the wash and scrabble. It’s hard not to wonder, actually, if the vocals aren’t intentionally buried.

Still, Lobley’s bouncy guitar hooks from You Are at the Top Level presage the jolt of melody that opens Ice Arena and “Another A to Z,” and much of the admiration of the pop canon that filled that first album helps this succeed in similar fashion. In this case, the vocals are deep in the mix and sound like they’ve been sampled through a Casio keyboard from 1982, but they develop a sneer for “We Are the Dead End Streets,” which plays with rushing and stalling rhythm. There are echoes of the UK here, whether it’s the shoegazer set or the Madchester crowd.

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