MXMS – music review

MXMS – music review

MXMS is an underground two person band that is one of the best artistic expressions in music. Dark, haunting, depressed, and gothic, they call their sound funeral pop. It stands out as deeply poetic and undefinable, with Ariel’s low and smoothly ravishing voice stretching over Jeremy Dawson’s keys played usually in the style of dark cabaret piano. Their songs have been released as singles and short EPs, and this has contributed to being a small band, but it has given them great creative freedom and a wider range of expression than albums allow. Each song is a unique stand alone production with diverse elements that always remain deeply haunting in nature, and each song packs an individual punch that songs from an album often lack. Collectively, they have released enough songs to have an album length portrait of their music, but by releasing songs individually they stand as a bold underground expression of singular works of art. Each song is unique and powerful like a painting and has little relation to commercial music in favor of something much more important.

Ariel Levitan of MXMS
Ariel Levitan with MXMS at 3 Kings in Denver, 12/9/18

Ariel’s voice is deeply moving and has an internalized sense to it. The depressive sounds she is able to express are beautiful in a way that is haunting and introspective. She sounds like the expression of a longing soul from an underworld seeking light, like the story of Persephone and Demeter, her voice emerging from a land of barren seas beneath what everyone else sees. The perception of subtle sounds in the band’s dark repertoire amplifies this. They don’t veer off of dark low fi sounds ever, and MXMS songs are slower than a lot of gothic bands, but they are entrancing within a different range of perception, seeming like a warm glow from a hidden place in a different dimension. Ariel seems to come from somewhere out of the dark to show us beautiful subterranean shadows we can’t see anywhere else.

Ariel Levitan with MXMS

She also has an unusual amount of flow in her delivery, something that is normally more typical of hiphop, and I discovered we are both fans of K.Flay, a hiphop artist working with darker styles and rock overlap. That flow makes Ariel sound ravishing on lines like, “The blood’s on the floor, head’s on the door,” from The Run, for making the associational lyrics mesh against each other into a single thought which quickly becomes profound as the song transitions into, “I swear I saw god in a 7-11. If my head’s in the oven then we’re getting to heaven. He gave me a shot of the holy ghost, and suddenly I’m fine,” only to then be crucified on a cellphone tower in an auto accident with the song’s powerful depressive refrain of, “And I love being alone, playing with a gun. The blood’s on the floor, head’s on the door.” She shows us beauty and transcendence amidst complete breakage.

The keyboards are equally unique. Loads of goth, industrial, and synthpop bands make central use of keyboard sounds, but few are able to make them so completely central and expressive to their sounds. Jeremy also plays in Shiny Toy Guns, and his style of playing for MXMS is usually found in piano, but other songs take more 80s sounds, and some even have traces of hiphop. He has a diverse range, but quiet and dramatic piano based playing is the axis for most of their compositions. He is the proverbial shadow of the band’s name, which stands for me and my shadow, and his haunting piano sounds fit the imagery well. MXMS has a profoundly consistent way of staying within the shadows and finding moving things to say about them without ever becoming repetitive, because every song is deeply poetic and individual, adding to the band’s enigmatic appeal as a genuine art project.

Funeral Pop

Something in the Way is one of the best covers I’ve heard, and it is a better version than the original. Paring the song down to a keyboard with drum track and a haunting voice allows the silence that Cobain put into the composition to pervade much more. He was haunted by depression and anxiety and had a deeply dystopian view of the world that has always struck me as being gothic on the inside, and Killing Joke was a major influence on Nirvana to reinforce that sense. MXMS brings this out with less traditional rock instrumentation and a slower tempo. The song becomes mellow and expansive, internalized into what seems like a psychedelic painting of sadness. It seems that Ariel has managed to somehow resurrect Cobain’s haunted soul and is able to say what he meant more clearly than he did himself. Her enigmatic delivery gives the song an airy openness that the original version needed, and it makes it much more a depiction of nothingness.

Ariel with MXMS
Ariel with MXMS

Anna stands out as a rhythmic beautiful expression of closeness, desire, and facades. The lyrics are wonderfully associational as are MXMS’ best songs, with a narrative that is sparse and impressionistic. The opening line of, “Choke my throat with the blood of the vine. Cursed black hearse, wanna go for a ride?,” sets up an impressionistic story of an encounter, and the song proceeds to tell the story of modelesque and strange Anna. The refrain, “Anna’s got a gun, and it’s pointed at me,” talks about female power but with the burden of superficiality shaped by desire. “I like the young girls, super thin. Look at her hipbones, porcelain. I like the good girls, who cry every day,” points to love being deflated into desire for the image of a person rather than the totality, while the line, “I only love you when you’re falling apart,” talks about exploitation but also a powerfully dark aesthetic of beauty being found in a total mess, much like Jim Jarmusch found striking beauty in a decaying world with Only Lovers Left Alive. The cover art for the single looks like an inversion of Ariel into Anna, as though it’s an alter ego or a shadow of herself, playing with her own image to subvert it. One has the impression that Anna is a commercial image of beauty metaphorically pressuring Ariel into less subversive artistry, but alas, it isn’t to be.

The song Rx has my favorite and most memorable line of, “I’m just a girl, and I want to go home,” which I still remember her singing next to a video screen with Jeremy in a dark cloak when they opened for Combichrist as a brand new project.  It’s a beautiful depiction of damaged innocence and emotional depth that makes for far more serious statements than most bands can deliver. From that early era, Omg also stands out for being one of the saddest and most haunting songs about separation anyone has ever written, with its, “I stand here naked, looking up and down, while your ghost is touching me. You made my body feel like heroin. Until you wake, I’ll sleep,” lines. It seems as though we are touching someone’s soul and seeing the face of human desire rather than just listening to fun or even experimental sounds.

Jeremy Dawson with MXMS
Jeremy Dawson with MXMS

The new song Gravedigger is an example of some of the wider sounds they have developed from hip hop and EDM influences. There are bass drops that sound like old style underground early dubstep. It also seems like the logical and more ominous successor to Anna in many respects, with a blending of horror and beauty into lines like, “Everybody wants pretty girls they say, but nobody knows pretty girls make graves.” It was released as a Halloween single and is the best Halloween song I’ve heard in ages, though it is also much deeper and reflective like most of their songs, with Ariel subverting most of what she sings about even while the song is extremely fun. She raps about being a dangerous girl who etches gravestones while she is also just a cute goth girl singing with obvious irony.

As a live band, they are even more powerful, as was on beautiful display in December of last year when they opened for Psyclon Nine at 3 Kings in Denver. The low fi nature of the music makes it much more intimate than most any other band. Where even the best bands seem to have some amount of theatricality to communicate with their audience, MXMS is stripped bare. It seems more like they are sharing musical poetry that comes from somewhere deep within or some strange place not everyone sees. It allows them to be visionary in a purely musical sense without projecting anything but instead showing how basic and powerful what they have created really is on its own terms.

Ariel Levitan

It’s a very powerful experience and seems very much like music stripped down to its raw parts, its creative source without layers of production placed on top. They are both excellent performers, but in many respects, this is far more primal than other forms of music. It is similar to the way that poetry can strip down language to its most basic functions and show how it works by taking away as much as possible to leave only what is necessary, allowing one to see how meaning itself emerges and what music is made of by using the barest elements to study themes of the deepest, most personal and existential concern.

To distill this the most, MXMS is perhaps the most existential band around, and this reminds me of classic musical acts and gothic ones at the same time. On the side of classics, Leonard Cohen was deeply existential with dark lyrical songs of bitterness and hope guised in simplicity, and I hear echoes of him and Nick Cave translated into a dark sad gothic low fi realm. I’m a fan of this aesthetic. Low fi sounds have been pushed by good mainstream musicians advocating garage rock like Dan Auerbach with a hope of returning to rock roots, but their efforts have been undermined by the commercial stature of their projects. Low fi works best on smaller terms, and MXMS has mastered it. They also execute it in a way which is entirely original rather than a return to early rock sounds. This is underground art with deep purpose and pristine execution.

Paris

For February of 2019, MXMS have released a stunning new song, Paris, and it is one of their most haunting and moving songs. When I saw them play in March of 2018 at an art gallery, Ariel was wearing a Paris shirt, and I was excited about where that would lead as a long time scholar of French philosophy and cinema. The song is a story about love in Paris, but it’s also about love for Paris. An epic city of art, Paris is perhaps most strikingly photographed in Jean-Luc Godard’s great films of the 1960s. He has perhaps the best run in the history of cinema in that era, and his movies excel at showing nighttime Paris in dark beautiful facades of flickering light with haunting faces in works like Breathless, My Life to Live, and Alphaville

with Ariel

MXMS captures that beautiful haunting atmosphere of decaying art amidst a threatening world. Ariel’s lyrics are especially impressionistic and paint a portrait of a person who opens her up and also of a city itself in a beautiful way that is so natural it’s easy to envision the world is made of glimpses and not things, her gentle voice capturing the flow of images and feelings better than any other way of seeing a city. Godard’s films capture tragedy and impending doom. He saw threats to romance and poetry from accelerating capitalism and technology implementing dehumanized social control. The  funeral pop of MXMS captures similar feelings for me of the beautiful, dark, haunting, and sad cinematography of his futuristic film noir Alphaville, which I’ve always thought is his most poetic film and most beautifully photographed one.

Ariel with MXMS
Ariel Levitan with MXMS in Denver, Oriental Theater, 4/23/19

Poetry is at the forefront for MXMS, and Paris captures it most profoundly. Ariel sings, “Why is Paris so beautiful tonight? You said, not as beautiful as you,” and we feel the city becoming a part of her. She continues about her feelings, “And I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing here right now, and I don’t have any idea of who you are,” capturing a feeling of being out of place but also finding oneself by being so outside the norm. Then she croons, “Will you stay with me? Don’t leave me alone.”  It’s a beautiful and haunting look at a place and a time. Jeremy’s keys sound like beautiful glimpses of sound floating over the boulevards of the city with mellow echoes of an aching heartbeat and memory, and the percussion sounds kaleidoscopic as it gives strange echoes of what could be footsteps roaming a haunting place of beauty in all directions with no fixed place. It’s a masterful song, and it gives Ariel’s beautiful voice a  pure space to dwell in with her airy sighs. 

Funeral Pop 1 EP

On May 1st, MXMS released their very first EP, Funeral Pop, volume 1. It is an exciting event and for the first time brings some of their songs together into a larger work. It will be followed later in the year by a volume 2. The songs on the EP together express the band’s vision in beautiful shades. The opening song of Salvation Hurts is more of a rock song than any of their other tracks. It’s a beautiful and soaring song with new wave influences and 80’s style keyboards mixed with Jeremy playing guitar. The sound is altogether beautiful, and Ariel’s voice sounds like it is reaching to heaven in line with the idea of the song. It has some of the best lyrics MXMS have written. The song talks about surviving, being saved, and finding salvation, maybe in the religious transcendent sense, though it could also be interpreted more mundanely. From bad experiences such as drugs, we are told the story of surviving and living itself bringing suffering but being worth it. Hearing her reach truly soaring vocals is beautiful, and it is one of my favorite vocal turns of any song. She is a great gothic vocalist with a lot in common with Peter Murphy and Jyrki 69, bringing deep airy vocals against occasionally jarring highs with jagged edges and soft blows that seem like bits of light hovering above darker waters.

Ariel Levitan with MXMS

Gravedigger now finally gets a proper home as the second track. With it’s hip hop styling and bass sounds that also show a bit of EDM influence from the heavy varying bass drops of dubstep, Ariel raps out a gothic tune where she sounds bad but is really cute. Paris also finds a home here as the third track, and once again a different side of the band emerges with that beautiful hazy song. The recent After Night is then the fourth track with it’s haunting reflections. The new song Timebomb debuts on the EP, with more hip hop influence turned into dark electronica with irony, and the new song The Enemy closes the EP. All of these songs have been performed live, and The Enemy is beautifully dark and seems like a natural progression into an original slow and moody song from the band’s cover of Something in the Way by Nirvana. I find this to be a beautiful expression of a very different path for music. It’s a sustained work of austerity and a deeply gothic vision of sad beauty and life’s gentle dance of finitude. None of us are here forever. Gothic culture has created artistic ways of recognizing this as a central human truth, but MXMS have achieved a way of examining that without any artifice at all. While their slow pace on many songs will likely lose some people who want party music, those who see genuine art in the best gothic offerings are likely to find other works look cheap or false by compare. I don’t know what the commercial potential for that heavy dose of sincerity is, but as a way of achieving beauty, it stands alongside works of renaissance art that graciously refuse to accept normal life as a complete circumstance or real enclosure. We all die, and there is always more to see than our eyes show us at any given time, and MXMS songs are often calm to offer an openness to that sense of mystery. 

with Ariel Levitan

Performing again in Denver, this time at Oriental Theater with The 69 Eyes, Ariel and Jeremy were moving, beautiful, and epic. They did have to deal with a very large stage that is much bigger than their normal venue, and it taxed their lighting equipment, but the show was haunting and beautiful. Ariel seemed to be on fire and was relatively direct for how she sings her songs. The new EP was available on disc with them, and they performed all six songs from it along with Something in the Way, which fit well against them for its eerie and haunting sense of mystery. The band embraces quiet and silence like no other musical project, and I admire this philosophically. Martin Heidegger’s examinations of poetry make a profound case for silence itself being the dwelling place of language, the place from which meaning can emerge. Overflowing sound is too imposing to say very much. Painting silence with sound so that each note and lyric can emerge as a bold statement is far more powerful. Ronan Harris sometimes plays with this in VNV Nation, and he is indeed a poetic artist as is MXMS. I enjoyed seeing Riverside Cemetery with Ariel and Jeremy before the show. It was a beautiful and calm place, and they showed great respect for it. We sat next to a beautiful sculpture of Christ, and the place captured a sense of the silent as beauty very well. 

Originally published 1/1/19; updated 2/22/19 & 5/15/19

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