Ever since the news broke that Vancouver electro-industrialists Numb would be returning from a break of more than twenty years the question was whether the band could conceivably live up to their legacy. From their earliest LP releases through best-in-class 90s hard electro-industrial records like Blood Meridian and Wasted Sky, Don Gordon and his collaborators have always been a deep scene head’s act, the kind of band whose legend grows the further you get from their active period. Could Gordon, now acting for the first time as vocalist as well as producer and programmer produce something on par with the expectations that a new Numb record would naturally engender?
It’s somewhat paradoxical, in light of those questions, that a big part of Mortal Geometry‘s appeal is how unassuming it is. There’s little on record which points to the band’s hiatus, either in sound or approach. While the off-kilter beat and driving programming of “Redact” are a great way to kick off a classic electro-industrial record, Numb don’t seem bent on “reclaiming” their position in the post-industrial landscape, proving that “they’ve still got it” or any of the cliches which generally accompany twenty year layoffs – they’re just doing what they do. “The Waiting Room”, with its speedy kicks and great mix of processed guitar and tweaky programming, is just the sort of instrumental deep cut that DJs would have been combing for during Numb’s original run, but would still fit in just fine on most contemporary industrial dancefloors.
Situating itself musically in the middle of the band’s discography in terms of style proved to be a wise decision on Gordon’s part; the rugged, fluid textures of the later-90s material with some of the clarity and structure of their mechanized-rock era proves to be a good formula that sounds like the band without also sounding dated or like a retread. Even the more outre tracks which don’t have clear precedents, like “Summer Lawns” (a single minute of rhythmic electro programming bracketed by a minute of drone on both ends), are neither distinctly retro nor trend-chasing attempts to sound current.
As a vocalist Gordon doesn’t necessarily have intensity of a Blair Dobson or a David Collings, but he acquits himself well on the songs that require a vocal presence. He musters an appropriately contemptuous sneer for mid-tempo workout “How It Ends” and seats himself at a comfortable range and register on the bassline driven “When Gravity Fails”, serving the material and staying well within his range. That said a significant portion of the record is purely instrumental, and that’s fine: a number like the crawling, soundtracky “Shadowplay” and the nigh-dark ambient title track speak for themselves in terms of mood and thematic ambition.
A record like this arrives on all of our desks burdened by both nigh-impossible expectations and a heavy amount of mystery. Mortal Geometry swiftly diffuses both the myth-making and the wanton speculation, getting down to work from track one. It’s a pretty good Numb album. Not their best, but easily as good as anyone could reasonably expect given such a lengthy hiatus. That may not be the sort of takeaway which inspires breathless hype and excitement, but after so many years of uncertainty surrounding their absence, it’s just nice to have Numb back.
IMO this album is the textbook definition of a grower. I felt much the same as the review does upon the first few listens and honestly I still kind of do mostly when I think about the record — but I find myself listening to it a lot more than I would expect, considering how unassuming it appears on the surface. You’re right that it’s not the easiest album to summon outrageous praise for, but I think it might actually deserve it not in spite of that quality but because of it. It is so subtle and assured and of a piece with Gordon’s former work that it’s easy to imagine it being released 2 years after Language of Silence, not 20.
(upon reflection a lot of this record reminds me more directly of Language of Silence and halo_gen than say Christmeister or Wasted Sky)