Mystery Roar (Phoenix 4.19.10)

Posted on April 22, 2010


I’ve never been to a disco band’s practice space, but I figured it would involve lots of velvet, mirrors, and other visions borrowed from the foggy-lens films they used to show at roller rinks. Was that naive of me? Stepping into Mystery Roar’s industrial Charlestown basement space, I was greeted with the following disclaimer: “Sorry for the smell. There’s a dead mouse somewhere that we can’t find.”

The six-piece Mystery Roar take the gentle art of cool-breeze disco very seriously. For a generation that’s used to unearthing this stuff from rare vinyl and old Solid Gold videos, it’s not easy to imagine how it gets made from scratch, but the Roar do just that. This Saturday at Great Scott, they unveil their first record, a Mystery Roar EP on shrewd Boston dance label Dopamine Records.

The new video for album closer “Mayhem” plays up the mystic diva side of the band, with frontguy Nathanael Allen Bluhm crooning into the camera while his face shapeshifts and multiplies, as if someone had made him a boss in a Star Fox game. Bluhm has a smooth baritone that fits in with the cosmic synths and gangs of vocoded back-up vocals, but it turns out the live performance is where it’s really at. “It can be really surprising when people see us and realize it’s real three-part harmony going on,” he says, pointing to bandmates Joseph Wawrzyn and Jake Dempsey, who grew up with him outside Scranton. “The three of us have been singing together for so long, being in bands back in Pennsylvania, even, that harmony just comes naturally.”

These three and bassist Patrick Dole began working on bedroom recordings for Mystery Roar after the break-up of their previous project together, Fantasy Mirrors. Last year, they added third keys player and robot voice Tia Carioli and Patrick’s brother Andrew on drums to finish up the record and flesh out the live crew. Since then, they’ve been on a tear, heating up dance audiences used to dinky stage shows.

“I think the whole minimalist thing is awesome if it’s done well,” says Bluhm, who first courted Boston in the sample-powered duo Cassette (who had a short lifespan as We Are Cassette). “But you see all the blogs — everything is two guys and a laptop. For me, coming from a synth-pop duo to this format feels like we might be on the cusp of a reaction to that.”

So with six keyboards and live skins and guitars in tow for every show, the band might not be a soundguy’s wet dream (“We try and buy him a lot of drinks,” says Bluhm), but everyone else is catching on.

“We started out just a bunch of deep disco shit and Italo records and stuff,” says Patrick Dole. “When things got moving with the band, we just wanted to keep that vibe and psych it out a little bit.”
They throw down that gauntlet on the new record. Even though it was recorded mostly in Wawrzyn’s bedroom, the thing packs a pleathery hi-fi punch — and you can buy it in 12-inch format. Drums pop and electro-circuits swarm past like schools of fish through bubbly plucked guitars. “NYC Balloon” makes a fetish of fingertips and cotton-candy fogs. Patrick Dole’s bass lines — particularly on the gooey-soul Trapper Keeper jams “Give It Your All” and “Why Can’t I See You” — could power hundreds of alternate-universe De La Soul roller jams. Over the six long tracks, they cover a lot of juicy territory, from the Tom Tom Club to Xanadu. If it all sounds a bit disembodied, good. Part of the mystery is how this stuff translates to real life.

To that end, the group have been trying to break down walls between records and live bands. “I’d love to do something where there’s like two small sets and there’s DJs in between,” says Bluhm. “As sets turn over, you don’t even realize except visually that it’s happening.” He’s already pulled it off once at Central Square’s Enormous Room, where he faded a record into his own band’s live set and broke off stage during the last instrumental vamp to cue up the next disc.

This is starting to sound a little frightening — can we deal with undetectable man/machine crossover? It caused problems for Philip K. Dick dudes hunting androids, but I suspect Mystery Roar will bring it to a friendlier resolution — dead mice not included.

Original article appeared in the Boston Phoenix here.