Top Debut Albums of 2013, Vol. II – DIY Artist Mild Mannered Rebel’s Stunning Debut, ‘Ear to the Sky,’ Dazzles The Senses
by Devin William Daniels
The value of a given record isn’t hidden somewhere in the grooves; it emerges somewhere between the listener’s ear and the brain. It’s not a direct path. Any sound entering that space is necessarily filtered through our expectations, proclivities, and principles.
But we are not judging the record itself, only the remains that survived filtration.
The record itself theoretically exists, but we have no access to it. We are forced to listen in time, and, in time, we have good days and bad days, and things we arbitrarily like and things we arbitrarily don’t like. Bands get lumped together, genres are segregated over a couple dozen BPM, and the musicians themselves play to the expectations.
We judge countless albums without ever actually listening to them because the band name, the album title, or the cover evoke a certain sound or genre that maybe we aren’t interested in or have heard enough of.
Often we’re right in our assumptions because the artists are utilizing the same vocabularies as critics, fans, and promoters. Even when we do listen, the conventions are distorting the sound.
Mild Mannered Rebel has a special sound that is almost unmatched with any other unique style that we’ve heard from any other DIY artist or band in 2013. The first song that caught our attention, with its Middle Eastern and Baltic influences, is “The Climb.”
Mavrothi Kontanis, a highly skilled player of the oud (an instrument visually similar to a lute, associated with Arabic, Greek and many other cultures’ music), is the man behind Mild Mannered Rebel, a New York City DIY band. Kontanis is an American musician, born and bred in the United States, but his biography describes his roots in Halkidiki, Greece, as well as his associations with several of the greatest oud players in the world. His experiences have led him to composing film soundtracks and performing throughout the U.S., Europe and the Middle East. It’s a unique resume for an indie musician that leads to a unique approach.
He might blow a hole through your brain so that you might transcend the trappings of Anglo-American pop music, but with the excellent Mild Mannered Rebel debut, Ear to the Sky, he certainly provides a record that doesn’t fit into the typical trappings. It’s indie rock sensibility and English-language lyrics resist the label of “world music,” an oft-ignored and patently absurd genre, but its Eastern elements – which prove to be far more than window dressing – make it unlike almost anything out of the usual alternative music streams.
The reasons for the uniqueness of Ear to the Sky stretch far beyond its so-called “world music” elements, and one of its most striking quality as an indie record is the virtuosity and professionalism of its performances and overall execution. Indie rock is a genre that, like punk rock and the many alternative genres that descend from it, often trumpets the inherent value of amateurism, particularly as it relates to singing ability and technical skill at instruments.
So much has changed as punk rock gave way to post-punk and new wave and shoegaze and grunge, but one of the few constants of alternative music has been the fact that technical skill has never been a prerequisite, or even necessarily desirable. Various exceptions come to mind (J. Mascis, Stephen Malkmus, etc.), but those players are the exceptions that prove the rule, as their proficiency makes them stand out when in other genres (metal, jazz, etc.) it would be taken as a given.
The New York Music Daily wrote, Ear to the Sky is “raw, smoldering Middle Eastern rock …one of the most hard-hitting, fearlessly intense albums of the year.”
Mild Mannered Rebel, however, is chock full of extremely talented musicians with impressive resumes – not just Kontanis himself. Megan Gould provides violin and viola parts that engage in stunning conversation with Kontanis’ oud and guitars. Like many of the musicians, Gould has a varied and impressive background, with amble experience with Western popular music, Middle Eastern, and Greek styles. She has a long list of artists she’s recorded or performed with, including two giants of the indie world, David Byrne and Lou Reed, in addition to artists like Metallica, Philip Glass, and Fabian Almazan.
Drums and percussion are provided by Shane Shanahan, whose performances are integral to the record. Shanahan is versed in jazz, rock, and Western art music in addition to the styles of various other cultures. He is a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s musical group Silk Road Ensemble and has toured and recorded with the group throughout its existence.
A lot of what makes pop sound like pop (and jazz sound like jazz, etc.) is the rhythm, and in Anglo-American pop music the same rhythmic approach has become ubiquitous and often limiting to the sounds artists are able or willing to produce. Shanahan’s familiarity with the drumming techniques of different cultures, genres, and traditions enables him to step in and out of these different rhythmic paradigms. In turn, the album’s generic identity shifts in ways that can’t be done with only melody and harmony.
Rounding out the main performance group (which is augmented by guest vocalist Eva Salina Primack) is bassist Brian Holtz, who performs both electric and upright basses on this record. Holtz has performed a variety of festivals including South By Southwest and the North Sea Jazz Festival, and has performed around the world.
His bass lines show a clear jazz influence and a proficiency not often heard from the instrument on indie recordings. The strong jazz elements combine nicely with other prominent sounds (Greek, Middle Eastern, indie rock, classical, drone, etc.) to form a potent cocktail.
With such musicians on display, the album drips with professionalism, to the point where this might be seen as a negative by some. Indie’s love of amateurism comes from an aesthetics that places value on the inherent core of a song – the basic, inspired idea that could pop into anyone’s head and can’t be practiced or taught. The accoutrements are given little credit if they aren’t outright discouraged due to the “elitism” of the proficiency they require.
It’s no coincidence most of the great heroes and voices of alternative music – Kurt Cobain, Kevin Shields, the dearly departed Lou Reed – obsessed over song craft while lacking the technical skill of many teenagers in Guitar Center. That isn’t a bad thing, but it’s created a lot of inherent assumptions that can make an album like Ear to the Sky, with its technical flourishes, seem all about the bells and whistles. However, a closer examination reveals the bells and whistles are far more than that, and the core songs are far less typical than we might assume.
Appropriately, the album opener “Flight of Ikaros” starts with a lone oud, soon joined by a bass in jazzy interplay. For these beginning moments, the record is operating completely outside the vocabulary of indie music. The closest reference point for many listeners who’ve grown up with the Anglo-American pop/rock model is probably Beirut, or perhaps even video game music. The result is a sound that’s somewhat defamiliarizing, forcing the listener to actively examine what they’re hearing.
The melody and general direction of “Flight of Ikaros” (like other melodies throughout the album) can’t be easily predicted, as the hackneyed structures of many modern indie tunes can be. Instead of setting a trajectory and merely following the song’s momentum, Mild Mannered Rebel frequently grab hold of the reigns and steer the songs into new directions. The following is a video of Kontanis performing the counter song, “Fall of Ikaros,” in November of 2013 for a documentary film.
The moments of virtuosic instrumentation – a preview of what we’ll be treated to throughout – are not just there for kicks, like some traditional Greek version of a speed metal solo. They are fully realized elements of the compositions. The flourishes interrupt Kontanis’s pristine vocals and lend the song a distinct rhythm that inherently differentiates it from most popular music.
One of the most striking qualities of the album is the wonderful interplay of different string instruments, producing harmonies not often heard by rock and pop listeners. On this track, I’m reminded of “God Bless Our Dead Marines” by the great post-rock group (and off-shoot of Godspeed You! Black Emperor) Silver Mt. Zion, and I think it’s fair to question if Ear to the Sky should be called a post-rock album.
Taking the genre’s name literally, Mild Mannered Rebel certainly move beyond rock music more than most with their cohabitation of distorted, droning guitars with stringed instruments most rock fans have never heard of.
Mild Mannered Rebel certainly move beyond rock music more than most with their cohabitation of distorted, droning guitars with stringed instruments most rock fans have never heard of.
The album’s tempo is often frantic, emphasizing the skill of the musicians. One imagines ornate and theatrical dance numbers set to the songs in one’s head, though ironically not on “Dancing in My Dreams.” This track oozes out fuzz like a festering wound, even evoking doom metal. The lyrics consist of a mere two lines: “You lead me through dark days and nights/ I wake with you dancing in my dreams,” delivered without hurry by Kontanis, who seems to dance with the words themselves, slowly, lingering on each syllable, not wanting the dance to end.
Another highlight is “Byzantine Eyes,” which follows “Dancing in My Dreams” and treats the listener to expertly ‘dueling’ (they’re really quite cooperative) strings whose intricacy and ultimate surrender to a raked guitar chord recalls the art punk of Television, another band of alternative outliers whose technical proficiency in the New York punk scene proved as notable as their more traditionally “alternative” proclivities.
The vocalized sections of “Byzantine Eyes” hold a completely different character though, and with slight aesthetic tweaks could be found on an album from Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel, or even a classic rock group like Pink Floyd. They then give way to the instruments once again, and we’re treated to a solo that’s nothing short of awesome. The resulting juxtaposition makes this track one of the album’s strongest.
Lyrically, the album is not as interesting as it is musically. The songs tell fairly standard first-person narratives of pain and love, paired with indistinct cosmic and natural imagery. While this had no serious effect on my enjoyment of the record, it would be nice in the future to see Mild Mannered Rebel’s decidedly unique musical approach paired with a lyrical style that had more of an individual voice.
That said, there are certainly themes to unpack here, particularly as it relates to the band’s musical message. The Icarus myth runs throughout the entire record such that it could be labeled a concept album if you like that term (I don’t). References to the sky, clearly placed within the Icarus story, are frequent, such as “I look to the sky and there’s the sun,” and “You gave me wings to fly/ I just refused to learn.”
This fixation on the firmament is paired with a disinterest in the ground. Earthly images – be they a physical metal like gold (on “A Heart of Gold”) or a gravity-restricted setting (“So many times we’ve walked this/ road but now the trail’s gone cold”) – are largely negative, reflecting Icarus’s lust for the heavens.
There are clear parallels to draw between what Kontanis is doing and what Icarus did: venturing into new territory with people wondering why he wouldn’t stick to the safe ground (i.e. straight indie rock or even completely traditional Greek music) with its firm foundation and pre-installed (and predisposed) audiences.
Instead, he is attempting to create something new, just as Icarus tried to reach higher than anyone might dare. But Icarus’s fault, the way this album seems to see it, was not pride, but a complete disenchantment with the earthly world. In that way, he is a hero of the self-sacrificing artist who forsakes safe rewards gained via earthbound (i.e. clichéd) music, who risks everything to achieve his vision. I’m not sure how self-sacrificial Kontanis and Mild Mannered Rebel are being, but I certainly can understand why they would empathize with Icarus and look to him as an inspiring, not merely tragic, figure.
“[Kontanis] is a hero of the self-sacrificing artist who forsakes safe rewards gained via earthbound (i.e. clichéd) music, who risks everything to achieve his vision.”
Icarus’s story relates to Kontanis’ ambitions but certainly not his downfall, as this album remains airborne. The question on future releases will be whether Kontanis has flown close enough to the sun and, knowing the fate of his inspiration, will retreat to more oft-trodden heights, or if he will disregard the traditional lesson of his own adopted narrative and continue upwards, whether motivated by arrogance or stupidity. I personally hope he does continue, but is rather motivated by ambivalence, not towards the music, but towards the boxes music is put in, towards what might go wrong. A few moments in the sun, with the trajectory of a god, are worth the inevitable crash.
Devin William Daniels is a writer and musician from Pennsylvania currently teaching English in the Republic of South Korea. Follow him on Twitter or listen to his recordings on Soundcloud. Read more of Mr. Daniels’ posts and reviews via IRC’s archives.