In early 2019 I came across the debut of a-tota-so (released in the latter half of the previous year). It was a very enjoyable slice of math rock, but didn’t really stick in the mind. The music was undoubtedly well played, but if you’ll excuse the dad joke (and I am the father of four, after all), it was a little bit math rock by the numbers. As enjoyable as it was, it was lacking that certain something that leaves me wanting to share my enjoyment with the world. I liked it (and still do), but I’ll never rave about it. So a-tota-so’s new album has completely taken me by surprise. Lights Out is a completely different beast to its predecessor – and not simply because it has vocals. That would be an overly simplistic view, albeit understandable. Even without the vocals (which were all, as I understand it, added after the music had already been written), you can hear the difference. Lights Out is full of a bite and edge that the debut occasionally hinted at, but never really showed. Lights Out is the sound of a band that’s fucked off with the world. It’s full of anger and anguish, disdain and disgust, and generally sounds like an act of catharsis – which, I expect, it was.
The addition of vocalists is very cool, but is just one more new layer to the many added to a-tota-so’s sound – the icing on the cake, if you will. Tasty, perhaps, but hardly the main attraction. That said, the vocalists may well be what initially draws some people to this album, as they are a veritable treasure trove of talented voices. It’s hard to know how well known the bands these vocalists hail from are, outside their scenes, but certainly I was familiar with Sang Froid, We Come In Pieces, No Violet and Sugar Horse, and had at least heard of The St Pierre Snake Invasion and Mclusky, if not actually heard them. But, getting back to the point, the addition of vocalists to the a-tota-mix isn’t the difference in their sound – it merely emphasises that difference. I have no idea if a-tota-so provided a brief when they gave their tracks to the vocalists they chose to sing over them (probably not), but there is a surprising cohesion to the lyrical content and/or style. Lights Out almost comes across as a concept album, and I wonder how much of this is actually down to the music – which tells a story without needing words.
So is there a central story? Well, I think perhaps so, even if unintentionally and abstractly. Written within lockdown, I think it was unavoidable that the feelings of frustration many felt come out in the music and in the vocals. For an album titled Lights Out, it’s appropriately very dark in places, evoking the sense of anxiety, depression and isolation so many were feeling. There is a sense of release in it all, or as I wrote earlier, catharsis. And while many of the lyrics are ambiguous and could just as easily be about a hangover or a failed relationship, for example, it’s easy to read them all as part of a general malaise and mistrust of the government and its handling of the novel coronavirus. Some of the lyrics are definitely and overtly about this, and others are perhaps meant to be about something else, but still fit thematically. Even though some of the lyrics appear cut and paste in an Eno-seque fashion, they still spit venom at the state of the world, or more particularly and simply the state – the inept and corrupt government of the UK. And yet, throughout the album are moments of genuine hope, and an acceptance that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel (or, indeed, footprints on the ceiling).
The difference in sound from the debut is immediately apparent, as Jack O’Driscoll (God Alone) snarls with the band on hard-hitting opener, Choke. The debut had moments of occasional heaviness, but nothing like this. a-tota-so are still playing math rock, but it’s crunchier, grittier and noisier. My favourite math rock bands have always been those who mix the math with something else, whether that be post-rock, post-metal, post-punk, jazz, hip hop or whatever. I guess if I have to pin a style on the overall sound of Lights Out it is veering towards a post-hardcore fusion with math rock – but even that feels against the spirit of the album, which revels in disparate sounds. In fact, some of the lyrics would definitely fly in the face of such pigeon-holing of a-tota-so’s sound. But that said, if you’re a fan of At the Drive-In, or even The Mars Volta, there may be much to tickle your fancy here. There is that wonderful mixture of punky energy and vitriol, and intricate and dynamic virtuosity. It’s gloriously chaotic without ever becoming incoherent.
It would be easy to do a track-by-track review, not least because the various vocalists provide points of difference for each song, but I almost feel that would be a disservice to the album. It’s more than just the sum of its parts, so focussing on each individually seems to me to be somewhat missing the point. But that said, I have to mention one, and though I’ve not read any other reviews (as I never read the words of others before writing my own), I’m quite certain I won’t be the only one to do so. Because the closing track, featuring Ashley Tubb (of Sugar Horse) is simply magnificent. Talk about saving the best ’til last! You might accuse me of bias, because Sugar Horse did release one of my favourite albums from last year, but Ashley pulls out all the stops on this one. The music alone is full of aggression, and sounds as if it were written and played in the throes of anger, but Ashley turns it into a monster and solidifies When the Waves Come as the perfect closing number, summing up the character and feeling of the entire album in his performance. If anger is a gift, Ashley and a-tota-so just shared it with us all. And that’s that. When the music is over, turn out the lights…
01. Choke (Featuring Jake O’Driscoll – God Alone) (3:17)
02. Far Enough (Featuring Damien Sayell – The St Pierre Snake Invasion / Mclusky) (3:36)
03. I Am… (Featuring Aisling Whiting – Sang Froid) (3:57)
04. Squirrel Bait (Featuring Kieran Hayes – We Come In Pieces) (5:15)
05. Footprints on the Ceiling (Featuring Brian Scally – Ganglions / Anna’s Anchor) (3:35)
06. Spicy Nights (Featuring Jack Gordon – Irk / Platitude Queen) (5:04)
07. Sad Lamps (Featuring Ellie Godwin – No Violet) (5:01)
08. When the Waves Come (Featuring Ashley Tubb – Sugar Horse) (5:50)
Total Time – 35:35
Marty Toner – Guitar
Jamie Cattermole – Drums
Chris Marsh – Bass
Josh Gesner (Polymath) – Keyboards (track 4)
Realf Greville Heygate – Violins & Cello (track 3)
[Guest Vocalists – as listed with track titles above]
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: UK/Ireland
Date of Release: 11th March 2022