Mahogany Frog Make Quirky, Catchy Psychedelic Art-Rock

by delarue

If you heard Mahogany Frog for the first time and didn’t know who they were, you might assume that they were a European band from around 1974. If you like your music terse and wrapped up in a neat three-minute package, this Winnipeg, Manitoba group is not for you, although their most recent album, Senna is a lot of fun. What differentiates multi-instrumentalists Graham Epp and Jesse Warkentin, bassist Scottt Ellenberger and drummer Andy Rudolph from the legions of artsy stoner bands from thirty years ago is that their songs here are all instrumentals, and they’re pretty much through-composed: hardly anything here ever repeats, creating a constant element of surprise, a surreal, nonlinear narrative. That the music would be so consistently catchy despite the absence of recurrent hooks speaks to the band’s tunesmithing. They employ a chateau full of vintage keyboard settings but none of the cheesy ones. Tempos tend to be tricky, although the bass and drums aren’t very busy: they go more for a hypnotic, looping rhythm. The guitar, surprisingly enough, is the tersest instrument here: no garish, extended soloing, just layers of incisive, occasionally noisy, biting phrases, one after the other. At the risk of sounding painfully stoned, this is an audio kaleidoscope. The whole thing is streaming at the band’s main page.

The album opens with the two-part Houndstooth, and within thirty seconds the echoes of Pink Floyd’s Echoes make themselves apparent in the gorgeously echoey, shimmering guitar riffs over tightly scampering keys, bass and drums. It builds with a tricky baroque rock flair and then sails with a David Gilmour-esque bite. A bass riff appears out of nowhere and signals the second part, which is a lot trickier, somewhat more aggressive with the guitar distortion and layers of keys and closer to what a lot of people would call prog (a listen to some of this stuff out of context might trigger an “eww, Yes!” but that comparison doesn’t hold up long: this band is vastly more focused).

Expo 67 (a Montreal historical reference) opens with a quick Welcome to the Machine-style envelopey white-noise synth intro and then moves to more straight-up and anthemic, with more echoey Echoes guitar, oscillating synth floating over twinned guitar/keys harmonies with a wry sense of humor: some of the late Billy Cohen’s artsier stuff sounds a lot like this. Flossing with Buddha is a catchy pop song, thinly disguised, followed by the album’s most warmly tuneful number, a diptych titled Message from Uncle Stan. Judicious Britfolk-tinged electric guitar multitracks build toward an anthemic Roye Albrighton-style crescendo, catchily looped phrases over a misty squall where the bass and drums don’t come in for several minutes. The second part layers dirty, distorted guitar and electric piano within tricky tempo changes, swirly organ raising it to a big crescendo; it ends enigmatically, unresolved.

The strangest, and most fascinatingly original track is Saffron Myst, a steady, psychedelic, early 70s soul tune given the art-rock treatment. Clavinova appears over a thinly veiled clave beat through a series of jazz chords that hint at a return to a catchy chorus but never quite go there; the ending is unexpectedly and effectively comedic. The album ends with Aqua Love Ice Cream Delivery Service, another two-parter which goes for a triumphant overture vibe, an artful blend of bubbly sound effects within a maze of slide guitar and crescendoing, whirling keys. It all falls apart in the middle and ends on a surreal note with a brief quote from a Jean-Philippe Rameau baroque sarabande. Moonjune Records, home to all things global and prog, put this out this past spring.