As Mahjongg hones its aesthetic, the music just gets less interesting. The Machinegong EP and 2005’s debut full-length Raydoncong were noisy, wacky collages that mixed elements of new wave, African rhythms, revolutionary politics, and disco-punk. Both were uneven but they could spin you into a seething headphone hypnosis as easily as they could cause you to pull a muscle on the dance floor. The almost classic Raydoncong relied considerably less on Combat Rock-style guitar funk and more on polyrhythmic beats and well-placed cowbell than its predecessor, but it was hardly as boiled-down as Mahjongg’s disappointing new album, Kontpab. Opener “Pontiac” begins with two-and-a-half minutes of undiluted banging and clanging, bringing more to mind a hippy-led drum circle at Bonnaroo than a tribal fire dance somewhere in the third world, before being joined by a fidgety bass lick and some vague choral chants. It’s about as minimalist a statement as you would expect from Mahjongg, and it’s an ill harbinger for the rest of the album.
Mahjongg’s melodies and lyrics were never much to shout about, but here, without the accompanying cacophony, they really grate. On the “Kotbusser Torr,” uninspired prescriptions like “The system is based on wanting what you can’t afford/This thing that once was such a joy has got you bored,” spoken against a repeating loop of soft guitar twitches, cymbal touches, and what sounds like a buzzing alarm clock, reaches tedium quickly. “Tell the Police the Truth,” with its sarcastic testament to cooperating with the authorities, never rises above the blip of video game gunfire and drum thumping that dominates the entirety of its five-plus minutes. The similarly monotonous tracks “Wipe Out” and “Teardrops” keep hinting at an explosion or some bizarre turn, but the dull tapping, rapping, and tooting continues without climax to an undistinguished end.
At least “Those Birds Are Bats” stands out by the presence of recognizable structure: Chorus and verse are sung with full-throated mania, and a pleasing dose of guitar fuzz screeches across the second half of the song. But where previous Mahjongg efforts employed lots of dramatic tempo changes and sudden fadeouts of noise to unleash new themes, the band seems more interested in creating a precise rhythm and calibrating its slow evolution on Kontpab, only occasionally dropping in musical ornaments or vocal samples. As a musical experiment, that’s fine, but the members of Mahjongg should remember what they taught us on their first two releases: Pop music can be fun too.