By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Up til now, Aaron Mader has led a startlingly disparate double life on the local music scene. For nearly a decade, he was half of the singing/songwriting talent in the snarling post-punk beast that was the Plastic Constellations, as well as a beloved beatmaker in the rapidly ascendant Doomtree crew, crafting banging tracks behind the scenes for some of the Cities' finest rappers under the aptly hard-edged moniker Lazerbeak.
When TPC amicably called it a day in 2008, it appeared Mader's twinned music-making days were over. He rushed headlong into his role as a boom-bap sonic architect, crafting many of the tracks on P.O.S.'s breakthrough 2009 album, Never Better, and constantly collaborating with local rappers. The urge to sing his own songs again ultimately snuck up on Mader, though, when he found his beat-making muse shifting into previously uncharted waters.
"When Stef [a.k.a. P.O.S.] and I got into building the beats for Never Better, we started getting into some weird stuff, really moving away from that typical hit 'em all the time banger style," Mader recalls. "Through that process I started going further and further into crafting out-there beats to the point that I finally realized, 'Wait, no one is ever going to want to rap on this stuff!' Eventually, I started hearing melodies in my head for some of the tracks and realized I should just give it a shot and try and write some lyrics. I stopped making rap beats and just went off into my own little world."
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And what a strange and glorious world it is—the dazzlingly ambitious Legend Recognize Legend is a formidable fusion of giddy synthetic Euro-pop, confessional ambient balladry, and the occasional block-rockin' beat. The debut bridges the divide between Mader's lifelong loves of prickly and passionate rock and gritty, streetwise rap, landing in a surprisingly sweet and melodic middle ground so effortlessly that genre distinctions are the last thing on the listener's mind.
Mader's vocal delivery is a holdover from his Plastic Constellations days, a methodical understated sing-song that approximates the cadence of rap, if not its speed, but the sonic backdrop for his tales has shifted greatly. TPC's sinewy, razor-sharp electric guitar hooks and the pummeling percussive fireworks of prior Lazerbeak production work have been banished, replaced with a light and airy sound long on soothing synthesizer lines and joyful gang vocals. While the album fluidly incorporates the occasional skittish machine-manipulated drum pattern, Legend Recognize Legend largely favors an organic but lush instrumental tapestry (live brass, tympani, and strings turn up on more than a few occasions). Mader clearly reveled at the chance to think outside both the rock and rap box.
"There was a ton of overdubbing in the studio to bring the basic tracks to life and give it a real sound," recalls Mader, audibly excited at mentally reliving the making of the album, a collaboratively intensive affair featuring the contributions of pals from Doomtree, TPC, and beyond. "We had the basic structure and then just pushed it out there as far as possible. At one point I had 25 friends in the studio singing all at once. I spent a whole day tracking down a tympani-rental guy in St. Paul. It was sweet exploring all the possibilities. I can see how you can take that way too far and have like a 90-piece orchestra and the music suffers, but I had a blast adding all the layers."
That sense of expansion carries over to Legend Recognize Legend's lyrical realm as well. Alongside the typical escapist fantasies that powered Mader's muse in the early TPC days ("Cannon Falls" features an inner tube that transforms into a party-hearty spaceship) are poignant songs about enduring marital tribulations (lead single "Salt and Sea," on which Mader's wife supplies harmony vocals), and seeking redemption for serious transgressions ("Pearly Gates").
"As much as I love singing about tornadoes and volcanoes and valleys, I never want to be too heavy-handed with talking about the same stuff repeatedly in my songs," adds Mader. "I tried to write about life from different angles this time. I'm in my late twenties now, and as much I hate to label this record as my getting-married-and-pondering-death album, it definitely deals with issues I wasn't thinking about when I was 23 and writing songs in the Plastic Constellations."
It's rare that a musician already a decade into his career and intimately familiar with the ups and downs of the working musician grind maintains Mader's infectious enthusiasm. At a time in life when many grow jaded and weary, he appears permanently pointed in the opposite optimistic direction—apparently because he has no choice in the matter. "Making music is still almost a mythological love affair for me," admits Mader. "I wake up and if I haven't created music for over a week, it affects me. I'm bummed out and not as fun to be around—you can ask my wife. From the moment I met Jeff [Allen of TPC] in seventh grade and started playing guitar, it's been like that. It's something I have to do. Whether it's good or not is open to debate—I still have to do it."
LAZERBEAK (WITH HIS ENSEMBLE OF LEGENDZ) play a CD-release party with the Plastic Constellations and DJ Paper Tiger on FRIDAY, OCTOBER 1, at the FINE LINE MUSIC CAFE; 612.338.8100