Every few years ska bursts from its grave and produces a record that is so incredibly listenable and summer friendly, it makes you wonder why the genre was buried to begin with. For a long period, the Rx Bandits were one of the few bands making it work. Combining Sublime-like horn parts and Mars Volta-style jams, the Bandits put out five full-length records championing this sound and forming an impressive touring force. On their sixth full-length, Mandala, the band has left this configuration with the departure of trombone player Chris Sheets, and chosen a shift to, “scaling down the use of horns to create a new twist to the constantly evolving dynamic.”
The only twist this has left the band to fall back on is indeed a more rocking one. By blending the band’s normally heavy sound with a twinge of the electronics, which has previously been featured in lead singer Matt Embree and drummer Chris Tsagakis side project, The Sound Of Animals Fighting, any bit of ska on the album is nearly wiped away.
The horns lie in the hands of The English Beat’s Nat Love and Steve White, who provide minimal assistance on “Bury it Down Low” and ”Bled to be Free (The Operation)”. Embree’s guitar playing remains as strong as ever on the track bearing the longest song title of the year, “Hope is a Butterfly, No Net Its Captor, She Beats Her Wings and Softly Sings of Summer Scent and Childrens Laughter (Virus of Silence)”. It sounds as if fellow Sargent House recording artist, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, jumped in the booth as Embree feverishly strums and picks his way through the song. Everything about this song, from Embree’s high pitched vocal delivery to the jammy breakdowns, sounds like a Mars Volta track.
The new, more electronic sound is best featured on ”It’s Only Another Parsec…”. The song begins heavy, continues heavy, and ends in a very slowed down jam session. Embree screams out, “If the weight it seems too great/May this melody invigorate/and empower your persistence.” The track does just that, it invigorates before turning into an incense burner.
“White Lies” is a slow burner that heavily features keyboards and a slower beat from Tsagakis. Embree, in his progressing age, still doesn’t find breakups easy, as he smoothly sings out, “You said you’d find something better/You said you’d find somebody better/Now it’s time to go and find your own way.”
Through the change in sound, and the move from Drive-Thru Records to Sargent House, Mandala remains a strong listen and an essential album in the Bandits’ evolution and discography. With its fluctuating tempo bringing you from the highest of high’s to the lowest of lows, the Bandits continue to know just the right prescription for a rocking summer album.
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