Within the ascendant crop of Australian rappers there are a few who, for my money, are required listening. Tkay Maidza. L-Fresh the Lion. Mathas. The latter (Tom Mathieson if you consult phone book) is a local legend. And – granted – he’s been honing his craft, publicly and privately, for years now. Still, Armwrestling Atlas marks his expansion into the national spotlight, and it feels like an exciting new chapter. In particular we’ve had the high-rotation, Abbe-May-featuring single “Nourishment,” with its lyrically dense and thoughtful contemplation of postcolonial Australian culture through the universal metaphor of food. There was “Stone Cold Sober,” featuring Empty: swaggering and melancholic narrative hip-hop with genius pop smarts in the chorus. Then we got Mathas’ lush, jittering, irresistible collaboration with Ylem and Mei Saraswati – “Free Shit” – a refreshingly inventive anti-materialist missive: “Edible prize and a wine pair course / groupon coupon smothered in sauce / ram for that new screen . . . new tablet, / capulet family sweatshop meme.”
These more-or-less impeccable singles loom large within Armwrestling Atlas, but remove them and you’d still have a remarkable record. There’s no filler here, no slack. Teeing off with sparse piano, violin and patient vocals, the title track is rich in evocative and political imagery, slowly gaining momentum, but Mathieson is careful not to play all his cards at once. “Enforce Less,” in turn, is a cheeky slab of commentary aimed at WA’s authoritarian conservatism that bubbles away over a syncopated subtropical beat. It boasts its share of wordplay experiments and sly internal rhymes, but the real lyrical acrobatics are kept fidgeting in the starting gate until a minute and a half into “Doctorshopping.” Here Mathas reminds you that despite his relaxed, literary street-poet style he can still twist his tongue at a mile a minute, while spitting verses about buying nangs at Hungry Spot (RIP).
The infectious old-school bounce of “King Ponce” belies a dark tune, with Mathas role-playing a grotesquely familiar power figure (whether he’s a CEO or politican feels like a moot point), basking in a slime of misogyny, racism and chardonnay. “Part of the Home,” meanwhile, borrows the sluggish sample tactics of chopped and screwed / vaporwave, layering distorted guitar, sci-fi keys, insistent hi-hats, pitched-down vocals and a synth-bass I can only describe as rubbery. Eschewing the standard emphasis on Mathieson’s vocals and the thematics therein, this is easily the album’s most experimental and sonically surprising track.
Much of Armwrestling Atlas has been a while in the making. I remember watching Mathas jam with Injured Ninja on stage back in 20…10? and their collaboration/mashup “Puppies In Fishtanks Redux” appears here in the track 9 position. While bordering on post-apocalyptic skip-hop nu-metal, it’s wrought tastefully and creatively enough to come off. The psychedelic “Interplanetary Relations,” which arrives at track 10, has long been a personal favourite in Mathas’ live sets. It’s nice to see it enshrined in an album context, casually describing the overlap of fornication and alien abduction with unforgettable lines like “this light is flash-heavy, brutal as a dentist chair / paralyzes pupils – both of them just lying there / stunned, a metre off the ground, levitating / two bugs to a lamp-light at a camp-site avoiding aeroguard pumps.”
Even though it’s great start to finish, Mathas’ latest doesn’t necessarily invite “consistent” as the go-to adjective (nor do many rap albums I’ve ever heard). The dorky skit “Sick of It Interlude” featuring comedian Stuart Daulman, for example, feels dissonant against the eloquent poetry and wily humour that surrounds it. “Enforcement Reprise” is presumably a sequel to “Enforce Less,” and it’s a great track in its own right, but certain thematics start to feel repetitive. The album also zigzags stylistically, and is unlikely to scratch the itch of hip-hop fans whose tastes are firmly rooted in either “golden age” or contemporary, EDM-influenced aesthetic camps.
But these arguable weaknesses are also Armwrestling Atlas’ strengths. Mathas takes risks and almost invariably, the returns are significant. Detours into heavy dub-rock, retro TV-spot sampling, funky glitch beatcraft and earnest somber songwriting (to name a few flavours present) mean the record emphatically avoids predictability. Mathas’ vocals, often half-sung-half-rapped (or proffered in a soft, conversational style) are the glue that binds these disparate explorations together. Mathas is armwrestling with a world of styles, and in that contest, everyone wins. Elsewhere, he’s armwrestling with an unnavigable map of issues: of personal freedom versus state control, of power and privilege, of consumer culture; of life in a post-genocidal, colonial country; the politics of everyday relationships, recreational substance abuse, banal violence. Among all that there’s pizza, alien invasion, Norah Jones. These grapplings are less resolved. But the musical fruits of Mathas’ dilemmas are a kind of complex nourishment you’d be mad to pass up.
Mathas’ Perth launch of Armwrestling Atlas happens tomorrow night (November 20) at Babushka, Leederville, alongside Diger Rokwell, Joni in the Moon and Bison Low Legs. Abbe May, Mei Saraswati and Empty will also make live guest appearances. The album is out via Big Village and you can listen to it here.