Obey Your Brain-signed trio What’s Up? may be calling Portland, Ore. home these days, but their hometown of Sacramento, Calif. remains most significant when deconstructing their dense, offbeat approach to instrumental rock. Multi-instrumentalist and What’s Up? mastermind Robby Moncrieff, with his connections to Zach Hill, The Advantage and Marnie Stern, is a mainstay of Sacramento’s mathy experimental rock scene and beyond. It’s also probably worth a mention that Moncrieff served as recording engineer for one of the landmark records of this year – Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca. But on Content Imagination, Moncrieff – joined by bassist Brian Marshall and drummer Teddy Briggs – channels the tech-heavy rock that defines so much of the music from his hometown into a rich, concise patchwork of intricate guitar and bass work, effects-drenched Rhodes piano, and driving percussion.
Not unlike noteworthy Sacramento noise-rockers Hella, the songs on What’s Up?’s debut record are complex and repetitive. On second thought, perhaps Robby Moncrieff and Hella drummer Spencer Seim’s Nintendo cover band The Advantage is a more accurate comparison; looping guitar riffs and electric piano arpeggios carry and, at times, nearly drive hooks into the ground like video game music without the chiptunes, constructing passages of sound that range from kind of boring to outright hypnotic. “Seasoning’s Greeting” falls on the more enjoyable side of that equation, as Moncrieff’s agile flurry of keystrokes alternate between peaceful swirls and blistering assaults, but “A Longing Expression” doesn’t fare quite as well, its at-first-compelling riffage ultimately stunted by an inexplicable, and unflattering, verse-chorus-verse progression. What’s Up?’s compositions seem to rely on relatively unorthodox song structures and luckily, most of the tracks here don’t fall into that same trap. At the same time, for whatever prog-pretensions one might find in these songs, Moncrieff and crew temper their sound with succinct songwriting and decisively lo-fi production. What could be overblown epics are instead brief and raw bursts of virtuosity.
With such a focus on the technical aspects of each composition, it’s not surprising that certain aspects of the larger picture can get drowned out in the process for bands like What’s Up?. To their credit, the band does not fail to imbue most of their songs with palpable emotion – another common point of detraction for tech-rockers – however, Content Imagination does suffer from its largely homogeneous sound. On first listen, it’s difficult to really pick the songs apart from one another, save for one or two standouts. It comes together a bit better on subsequent listens, but this record isn’t going to convert anyone who isn’t already a math rock devotee. If you are, give it a listen – just don’t expect to be blown away.
The Advantage – Elf-Titled
Battles – EP C/B EP
Hella – Total Bugs Bunny on Wild Bass