The term “willful obscurity” is used almost exclusively in a backhanded context when it comes to an artist’s integrity. Yet for Chicago’s bizarro disco outfit Mahjongg, it’s a winning aesthetic, no matter how strange or frustrating their methods might be. Proficient in mashing up the funk and rhythmic complexity of Afro-beat with the hedonism of disco and edge of new wave, Mahjongg all but guarantees that whatever expectations the listener harbors approaching each new album will be chopped, smashed, burned and remixed, then fed through a distorted filter. They’re not averse to the idea of an accessible melody, they just might slather it in the fuzziest production possible. And danceable rhythms play a prominent role in the unique sound they call “Congotronics,” though their hypnotic beats are just as likely to send you into a zombie trance as get your feet moving.
That “willful obscurity” also spills over into the band’s identity marketing, of which there is almost none. The group’s 2008 album Kontpab included next to no information about the band, while its predecessor, 2005’s Raydoncong2005 scrambled them in a highly confusing block of typewriter cryptography, rendering them almost completely anonymous. Given the sense of aural vertigo and frequent vocal merry-go-rounds on Mahjongg’s recordings, the lineup changes that have occurred within the band in recent years may have gone completely undetected. Yet the same warped and wonderful brand of aural hallucination of years’ past endures on new album The Long Shadow of the Paper Tiger, and is presented in an even more tightly constructed and, by their standards, concise fashion.
Comprising seven tracks, The Long Shadow of the Paper Tiger is a somewhat leaner affair than Kontpab. For the work of a band whose sound is fractured by design and mired in labyrinthine twists and turns, however, it’s a much more cohesive creation. Where that album was like a global Exquisite Corpse mixtape, Paper Tiger flows more naturally, transitioning between percussion heavy dancepunk tribal stompers and heady electronic excursions with surprising ease. Mahjongg isn’t any less challenging or weird, but their fuzz-splattered genre collages sound more complete and, more importantly, complementary to one another. A polyrhythmic fuzzbox disco jam like “Goobler” sidling up next to a dreamy, hallucinogenic robo-throb like “Miami Knights” may seem counterintuitive on paper, but the two tracks display everything the band does so well – danceable beats, layers of oddball samples, effects experiments and the occasional ambush with melody – in just the first two tracks.
It wouldn’t very well be a Mahjongg album without a patchy, camouflage burlap sack of surprises, and Paper Tiger delivers more than its share of aural ensnaring. Originally released more than a year ago, “Grooverider Free” likely baffled some with its electro beats and vocoder chants of “the sharper the suit, the darker the soul.” And yet halfway through, those beats are replaced with the huge, mega-distorted drums that have come to characterize Mahjongg’s deranged funk. Elsewhere they pound out an exotic industrial clatter on “Wardance,” mangle a hook from Devo’s “Big Mess” on “Devry” and “Whoop” offers a deceptively simple melody, adorned with minimal bells and whistles.
Album closer “L.A. Beat” seems to best encapsulate the unique, infectious dance-art that Mahjongg cooks up. It’s all bassy throb and funk guitar, and a moment of melodic clarity from a band that seeks as much to disorient the listener as entertain. The Long Shadow of the Paper Tiger succeeds on both counts. It’s neither the most accessible thing Mahjongg has released, nor the most bizarre, but by bridging those two extremes, they’ve yielded one that remains their most balanced and compelling.
Stream: “Miami Knights”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.