"Math rock" is a misunderstood musical exercise. Highly technical rock & roll arrangements hard-wired to shape-shifting time signatures can be perplexing, if not disorientating. But fine-tune the arrangements, simplify a few of those drums patterns, look (with fondness) into the pop horizon, and suddenly math rock becomes well-crafted music. It all adds up on No Knife's third album, "Fire in the City of Automatons" (Time Bomb), a beautiful example of pop-laden math-rock modesty, and easily the San Diego quartet's most accessible record to date.
"This one has more pop sensibility," says No Knife's vocalist/guitarist Mitch Wilson. "We've been trying to expand on the theme -- be a little more sparse with the arrangement. Give everything more space and not beat people over the head like the last record."
The group's first two releases -- "Drunk on the Moon" (1994) and "Hit Man Dreams" (1996) -- were full-throttle outings that delved way too deep into the punk/metal aesthetic. Those releases weren't stumbles but necessary steps in the evolution of a rock band. But several key changes had to take place before No Knife could complete its stylistic ascent. First on the list: teamwork. "The last record ... wasn't as collaborative as this record," offers Wilson. "Everybody had a hand in it, and everybody's personality came out on the record."
"Fire in the City of Automatons" (released May 18) serves as an introduction to drummer Chris Prescott, who sharpens No Knife with his jazz-inspired drum technique (rounded out by Ryan Ferguson on vocals/guitar and Brian Desjean on bass). The multi-instrumentalist has played with Rocket From the Crypt and Hemlock. Add this to the band's heady list of influences -- Wire, Drive Like Jehu, Television, The Pixies -- and you start to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
The "automatons" refer to a short story about a kid who travels through time using special toys sent by a scientist from the future. "There's a cube, and its got a little city inside of it. And there are all these little automatons -- robot people," says Wilson. "He figures out that he can control what's going on in the cube."
Unlike the automatons, No Knife has full control over its math-rock-inspired world.