Tom Berg is playing against type. Halfway through a basement paint job, he's slacking off. The color spreads along the wall promisingly, but then ends in jagged brushstrokes. White strips of drywall tape crisscross the ceiling like miniature runways, leading the eye to where the drywall itself gives way to exposed beams. Yet one would expect that the bass player for Self-Evident, one of the Twin Cities' longest-lived and most accomplished progressive/math-rock bands, wouldn't call quits on a project until it was fully realized, perfectly constructed, and meticulously detailed.
That neglected basement seems especially out of character when listening to Self-Evident's latest album (their fifth in nine years). Berg and the other two members of Self-Evident—guitarist/vocalist Conrad Mach, and new addition Ben Johnston (formerly of Clair de Lune) on drums—recently gathered in Berg's strangely unfinished basement to discuss their new, self-titled release. With the addition of Johnston (who replaced original drummer Brian Heitzman), Self-Evident is decidedly more tight and concise than previous releases. It explodes from the first millisecond of the opening track into an incredibly taut, angular, jarring, and hypnotic exploration of obsessiveness.
"The other albums just wandered a lot more. People thought they were heady when we weren't trying to be," Mach says. "I think this album is the most polished of anything we've done. It's the truest to what we do live."
A big, burly man who looks more than a little like Grizzly Adams, Berg says the band is often compared to the likes of Fugazi, Rush, and Milk. Fine company, to be sure, but Self-Evident demonstrate an intimacy and economy in their writing that their vaulted peers often lack. Difficult as it may be to imagine, it's almost as if they are some unlikely mash-up between Primus and Halloween, Alaska. That dichotomy is best illustrated on "Missing," which lurches between spare, ethereal guitar work accented by Johnston's minimalist cymbals and a crushing assault of furious drums and jagged guitars that erupt without warning.
Whether you call it math-rock or post-rock or progressive rock, there are certain adjectives that apply to this genre of music: intelligent, challenging, experimental, and virtuosic. Unfortunately, more often than not, you would be hard-pressed to add "accessible" to that list. Unless your idea of a fun time is to solve quadratic equations in your head, math-rock is not likely to be your casual listening choice.
But Self-Evident have managed to solve that problem. Throughout the album's 12 tracks, they pair odd time signatures with approachable melodies, jumpy syncopation with moments of quiet reflection, and accomplish it all without sounding like a schizophrenic mess. Not an easy feat. They pull this off particularly well on "The Standard," which begins with Mach shouting over a nervous guitar line that tinkles like breaking glass, but then deflates into a wistful ending that is as gentle and unassuming as any Love Cars song. You get the feeling your subconscious is being exposed to a crash course in advanced music theory, but you don't care—you're enjoying yourself.