back from the brink - Boston Phoenix

THE BOSTON PHOENIX  January 19, 2006

MUSIC | FEATURE STORIES

Playing with poetry
M
ascara find inspiration in the classics

By TED DROZDOWSKI | Read the article at The Boston Phoenix

Mascara's debut album, Cellar Door , was a psychic time bomb, meticulously assembled and tightly wound, at its most harrowing and sonically edgy drawing inspiration from singer/guitarist Chris Mascara's own personality meltdown and recovery. Five year later, the group's new Spell is an outright explosion: short at five songs, but full of terse, rippling energy and still wrapped, in part, by Mascara's need to explore who he is both in words and in sound. It's a loud, quick jolt — but more playful than Cellar Door as well, with its recording of a creaking gas-meter dial providing a coda for “Time Is a Lie” and the tune “Percy's Revenge” poking at issues of identity with a schoolboy's rhyme and a guitar chiming dark as the bells of Purgatory.

There's also a sense of theatricality spiking out of the mix's bold vocal melodies, pounding rhythms, and braying guitar flourishes. Which isn't surprising given Mascara's background in musical theater, which includes playing the lead role in Boston Rock Opera's 2000 production of Jesus Christ Superstar . But his now-supercharged singing is foremost among the new disc's broader gestures, which announce that when Mascara the band take the stage this Friday at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, after an extended break, there will be new turns in the works.

“ Jesus Christ Superstar was a big boost to me — a learning experience as a vocalist,” Mascara says when we meet at his Medford home. “I was singing next to [Extreme's] Gary Cherone, who played Judas, and that was pretty intimidating. But it was inspiring, too. You have to have your shit together when you're working with someone of that caliber.

“Also, when we were working on Cellar Door , everybody involved in the studio band was present while I was recording, and there was a lot of nit-picking. A lot of guitar overdubs I had in mind got nixed, and dirtier tones, and vocally there might have been a little erring on the side of accuracy rather than feeling. People were on top of me about pitch and pronunciation, and that can wring the spirit out of it.

“With Spell, we spent months just working on the vocal sound: different microphones, different compressors, different settings. After working on the songs with just the rough vocal tracks, I went home and wrote out the vocal melodies and made sure they were nailed, so by the time I recorded the final performances I was just interpreting and emoting. If the song called for a more intimate kind of performance, I sat on the floor and relaxed. So on Spell there may be a couple of vocal parts that are a little hairy, but what they give in pitch they take in spirit and conviction. It's a matter of singing my tail off in front of the band for years before our break, doing my vocal exercises every morning, and listening to a lot of soul like Jackie Wilson and Chris Cornell for inspiration.”

Numbers like “Frostbite” and “Time Is a Lie” chew on issues of personality and place, but none so much as the disc's closer, “Percy's Revenge,” with its oddball chorus of “This is how I spell my name out/C-H-R-I-S-T-O-P-H-E M-A-S-C-A.” That misspelling of Mascara's name appeared in a school yearbook when he was a kid, but the song's bloodlines of heritage and emotion run a lot deeper.

“I enjoy reading biographies of artists, filmmakers, poets. I read a book about Lord Byron and the legacy of his friend and fellow poet Percy Shelley. There was that night when they all got together on laudanum and Mary Shelley invented the story Frankenstein , so there are those elements of their literary legacy in the book. But I was fascinated by the idea that Shelley was so crazy one night he took a skiff out into a raging storm at sea and that's how he died. They had a burial and pyre for him on the beach, and legend has it one of his friends took his heart and saved it in a box, saying, ‘This is the purest thing.' So there's a line in ‘Percy's Revenge' where I sing, ‘Take my heart/May it stand for something other than what I am.'

“It's asking what's the purity of my heart and soul versus the identity I've been given, which I am a little hung up on because I was adopted. I don't take heritage and identity and family for granted. For me, that's really a raw song.”

He's equally inquisitive about the nature of guitar sounds and their emotional effect. To that end, the four gleaming hollow-bodied six-strings waiting on stands nearby like obedient servants as we speak are all in different tunings: standard for the ripping leads, and then Mascara's own tunings constructed around open strings that hit various unisons, fifths, and octaves when plucked together. They produce combinations of notes that grind, create uneasiness, or soothe — all at the whim of a player who developed his extensive grasp of harmony, rhythm, and melody as a child organ prodigy. Two — a Gretsch and a Gibson — are recent acquisitions that have already inspired Mascara to write a batch of songs for the full-length he plans to start recording in spring.

“The combination of my unique tunings with the open, breathy sound of the archtop guitars is my signature as a player. I love the feeling of discovery, and that's part of my effort to sound like nobody else. Eddie Van Halen sounds like himself; same with Jorma Kaukonen. If you're gonna be a lead guitar player, you've got to do something that really expresses what you're about.

“Each of my tunings have a specific body of songs they go with, and they've inspired me to write, so I really love and value them. But that doesn't mean I won't twist a peg on a headstock tomorrow and find another tuning — and maybe, then, another group of songs that I've just gotta write.”

MASCARA + BINARY SYSTEM + RAMONA SILVER + ADAM GLASSEYE | Lizard Lounge, 1667 Mass Ave, Cambridge | Jan 20 | 617.547.EAST