Coming four years after their self-titled debut, Nottingham Math / Noise three-piece A-Tota-So return with “Lights Out” released by bUTTONpUSHER. With their first album the trio cemented their skills writing angular, complex, and visceral Math Rock. Tinges of the genre’s greats such as Shellac and Polvo coat the band’s sound but never overshadow their clear originality and proficiency with their instruments. Lights Out sees the band expand their horizons and evolve their already unique sound. Being recorded at Nottingham’s own JT Soar by Phil Booth, the name of the game here is collaboration with each track featuring a different guest vocalist helping diversify the already eclectic sounds of A-Tota-So, from Jake O’Driscoll from God Alone to No Violet’s Ellie Godwin.
The album is a tight eight tracks leaving no room for filler. The first thing that will jump out to any first-time listeners will be Marty Toner’s guitar style which switches rapidly between blasts of distorted noisy goodness and gentle guitar licks. Opener Choke exemplifies this perfectly with a main riff set to cause any listeners whiplash, in the best way possible. Throughout the album though he proves he is more than just a one-trick pony providing some truly beautiful finger picked guitar on the track I Am… as well as on the song Sad Lamps. The rhythm section here as well does a fantastic job driving the chaotic and ever-changing lead. The drums on Spicy Nights especially deserve a spotlight switching seamlessly between a toms-based beat and cymbal-based syncing up deliciously with the arpeggiated guitar line.
Phil Booth’s production and the mixing by Rich Collins throughout the album is stellar, lifting what are undoubtably excellent songs even further and every decision made here has clearly been done in service of the songs. The distortion effects on the guitars are enough to make you think your speakers are about to tumble off your shelves, and subtle touches to the vocals let each unique performance standout. The drums also sound driving and punchy with each hit of the snare requiring a headbang all to itself. My favourite touch on the album has to come on the closer When the Waves Come with the vocals chanting the song’s title sounding like echoes from the sea itself. The vocals on Spicy Nights are mixed fantastically with them lying just underneath the other sections in the mix. Coupling this with an unhinged performance from Jack Gordon of Irk, and you feel as though he might burst out of the song itself at any moment.
Undoubtably what makes this album standout next to its predecessor is the vocals, mainly that there are vocals. It can be easy to assume that having a different singer on each song may be a gimmick but that is certainly not the case here. Each guest brings something wildly different to the table and the songs match this creating a very varied tone throughout. We have aggressive, shouted vocals from Jake O’Driscoll for Choke and Ashley Tubb for When the Waves Come. Both performances here are electrifying adding to the noise coming off the instrumentals. Contrasting them is Aisling Whiting for I Am… and Ellie Godwin for Sad Lamps who bring some beautiful ethereal lines to complement the gentler (for the most part) cuts from the track list. Brian Scally brings some great call-to-action style singing on Footprints on the Ceiling. I also enjoyed the lyrics for this song which seem to detail someone calling others to leave behind a life of drudgery and strive for something more for themselves. The crooning from Damien Sayell on Far Enough sticks out for me as well.
The variation throughout this album does not end with the vocalists however as stylistically there is a lot going on here. The most obvious is the two aforementioned gentler cuts I Am… and Sad Lamps. I Am… has some clear folk influences on the guitars in the beginning before the song evolves into something very anthemic. Squirrel Bait at first seems like the band’s most straightforward Math rock song, with an instrumental I could see coming off of Polvo’s Exploded Drawings. This is by no means a negative especially because the song shifts into something quite jazzy and relaxed with some lovely guest keys provided by Josh Gesner of Polymath. The entire album simply oozes with inspiration and no two tracks feel similar at all, all of this without sacrificing consistency and cohesion between the songs.
This album was a fantastic surprise. As someone who was not familiar with the music of A-Tota-so I have had a lot to dig into with this and doing so has been a great joy. Not only is this simply a great Math Rock album it is a showcase on how diverse and unique the genre can be. A-Tota-So have not just crafted a great Math Rock album but a great Rock album in general, with songs that I believe could even be enjoyed by the genre’s biggest naysayers.
Review by Jacob Best