Album Report: “Zone” by The Mall

On paper it shouldn’t be hard to figure out how an artist like Mark Plant arrives at a project like The Mall– the evidence is pretty obvious in retrospect. Their work with synth rock act Nibiru saw them taming a table of synthesizers while simultaneously singing and progressively adding and subtracting machines to the pack. Time spent with the hardcore outfit Dentist had them hugging an amp stack while wailing all finger power chords on one or more flying V’s. The rowdy yet calculated modus operandi of The Mall does have paths going to it, but it was nonetheless a surprise slowly unfolding.

Mark is ambitious and persistent, and it seems like when all the heat of perseverance became laser focused onto a new solo project the turbines lit up quick. A disorienting presence in social media paired with a loud message of anti-anti-promotion propelled them to post, like, live and breathe as The Mall. It felt more like a life they had taken on rather than a project they were part of. This amount of concentration allowed for the project to thrive in a context it took as vessel while also hooking an audience before it even began. All of Mark’s arsenal was pinpointed to one goal and one center, and the result ended up even more focused and collected than the wave preceding it.

“Zone” is the debut of The Mall, and though short it packs quite a punch. It was self produced, and the mastering work fell on Kris DiBenedetto. At the surface it is bread and butter synth wave: the drum programming is tight and urgent, the harmonic material is familiar and cozy, and the sequences hypnotize through repetition and layering. However, when infused with Mark’s personality and gusto every track comes to life and assembles idiosyncratic buildings in an otherwise known landscape.

A big chunk of this personality is owed to the artist’s long lasting relationship with punk and hardcore. Besides their work with Dentist, Mark has been close to many punk scenes over the years and this influence bleeds out in The Mall much more than when singing for Nibiru or sound scaping with their Solo Noise Project. Where Nibiru tried melodic hooks, The Mall came in blasting with yells; where the Solo Noise Project stood back with controlled subtlety, The Mall shot through with piercing leads, bass lines and cacophony; and where Dentist cranked up all the amps’ volume knobs, The Mall organized its array of synthesizers aiming for the perfect blend. Mark has shared hardcore punk as an influence in interviews, but to me this inspiration translated in an awareness of energy that went beyond the yells and the breakdowns– a culmination of experiences mingling together.

For an easy sample of the energy contained here look no further than the album opener “An Answer”. The introduction is quick but dramatic and quickly sets a stage that is as cybernetic as it is sweaty and exhausting. It quickly settles into a groove with a mellow melody and once you’re already cruising Mark cuts through guised in melancholy scream. The tension built in the layering bursts open at its seams once the first vocal section finishes and a bright and dramatic arpeggiator cuts through every frequency in the mix. “Zone” can be formulaic in a satisfying way, and the trope of chopping right through a tame frequency range with unruly cacophony gets me every time. Sometimes I wish I could hear these sound bursts isolated for breathing room, but The Mall’s method calls for a razor, and a razor calls for something to cut.

In terms of what is being preserved and cut through, the actual beats and bass lines stand tall as a rhythm section. Compositionally there is no reinventing of the wheel– Mark wears their influence on their sleeves and lets tints of all faces of synth wave bleed through. The parts are used cleverly and with tact, though, resulting in many memorable moments. The beat and bass on “Turing Machine” are conventional on their own, but as a response to the introductory yells to shoot the track off they work fantastically, firing my ears into a frenzy. ‘Birthright” feels playful with its unassuming intro melody over drums bouncing until Mark throws a harmonic curveball with the bass, painting the whole texture darker. The dramatic space voyage of “Habit”, the frantic arcade room of “Behind Heat”; all of these compositional contexts feel familiar and close while maintaining a characteristic idiosyncrasy that sets them apart.

The arrangements follow a similar “don’t fix it if it ain’t broken” line of thought, relying heavily on layering for development and leaving subtle beat changes to introduce new sections. At points I found myself wishing for more subtraction rather than addition, as the dense textures that result almost beg for a chance to breath. The middle breakdown in “An Answer” provides such a reward, but once the mix kicks into full gear once again I wonder if this respite could have gone on for longer for a more dramatic effect. “Habit” cleans up to only bass towards the second verse for a very satisfying release, but the signature lead comes in quick and takes me out of it quicker than I’d wish. Every clean up also guarantees plenty of space for the vocals to be heard, and when they’re gone I end up longing for the screams front and center in the mix. It’s easy to argue that the work presented focuses on abrasion in conventional settings, but every instance of texture clearing hits hard and leaves me wishing for more.

Beyond the instrumental achievements of “Zone” one is left with the actual core of the songs, roughly defined by Mark’s vocal work throughout. Waves of processing drench their yells in echo and confusion for a haunting effect as they rapidly shift from aggressive to emotional, from urgent to subdued by thought. Tracks like “An Answer”, “Turing Machine” and “Behind Heat” burst with violence and strength, while others like “Habit” and “Function” match the melancholy of the instrumentals with an sad and reflective approach. “Behind Heat” is especially pleasing, with the ubiquitous “Raised by snakes” hook dancing and dodging a torturous wall of uncontrollable noise. “Habit” also surprises– Mark’s dramatic screams accompanied by a choir of synthetic sirens give way to an oddly sentimental yet frankly refreshing moment in “Zone”. The vocal work isn’t extensively nuanced, but it doesn’t need to be. The strength of every song is often defined by a combination of parts and like their synth patches Mark’s voice is consistent and fits the material.

The different feels and approaches are evenly distributed throughout the track list for a smooth listen through, though I could have seen the eponymous instrumental drone “Zone” dropped towards the end maybe placed somewhere in the middle to ration momentum. I was initially confused by “Function” as a closer, but the forfeiting of looping to invite different chord progressions and a more compositional approach almost shows a different side of The Mall that could justify the track placement as foreshadowing. The listen through invites to continue– every track sports theatrical introductions, climactic departures and a visceral desire to keep that show going. It’s a journey dense in intention, but executed in a controlled and efficient way.

It’s not hard to see how The Mall has become Mark Plant’s most successful project to date. Before and after intensively listening to this thing the culprit seemed very clear to me: Focus. Everything from instrumentals, vocal work, arrangement, mixing and presentation feels thoroughly meditated and carefully thought through. “Zone” shows The Mall with nothing to hide because it makes its mission clear and transparent. It only took Mark one foray into their relationship with their machines and their new voice to develop a release that is as canonical and familiar as it is recognizable and bursting with personality. I initially expected a solid work tainted by a unidimensional approach, but the emotional contrast throughout the track list and the uncompromising sonic adventures taken combined with the fierce and studied latch onto the canon of synth wave conventions resulted in a release that proved truly special. It’s not hard to imagine that after listening to it, anyone with a taste for synthesizer music will be left infected by the sound of The Mall and curious to experience what other facets of it are in store.

Listen to “Zone” via Bandcamp below:

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