Album Review: Mas Ysa - Seraph

Album Reviews
07/30/2015
Gerrit Feenstra

Thomas Arsenault is not afraid of feeling. He did it in droves on his debut EP Worth, and he does it again on this week's full length effort Seraph. On song after song, Mas Ysa brings joy, pain, abandon, doubt, and suffering in quantities that most bands hope to capture once in their career. Meanwhile, against all odds and the extent of the human soul, Arsenault leaves himself threadbare to bless his listeners a live-giving gift of a record. Worth questioned its namesake, asking where worth comes from, and what choices in your life amount to growing and keeping it. Now, Seraph builds on that foundation, expanding Arsenault's view from himself to his family and his heritage, ultimately asking a huge question: how do we know we are striving after goodness in tumultuous world? Mas Ysa has his beacons of light and his thorns of the flesh, and so do we. On Seraph, we get to dissect them together to a soundtrack that alternates evenly between whispering dream pop and pounding techno. It's a magical mixture that fits its master wonderfully. Mas Ysa is a one of a kind dude, and his first full length record is an impressive gauntlet of emotions and motifs that demands repeat visits.

In youth, it's easy for us to see good and evil as a very black and white. There are heroes and villains and our ethics have only one dimension. It's outlook that helps create a moral foundation in our early years, but it quickly deteriorates as life gets more complicated and more and more areas seem to be painted in shades of grey. This process is the one that Mas Ysa guides us through on Seraph. From the shimmering beacon of other-worldly purity that is the opening title track, to the humbled brokenness of closer "Don't Make", we get a guided tour through a complex inner struggle. This is a journey through experience, perception, and ultimately, a desire to see the best in our heroes and in ourselves. But as we all know too well, this is an arduous process at best.

Following "Seraph" are "Margarita" and "Look Up", the album's two lead singles, each of which follow a driving house beat towards an equally broken landscape. "Margarita" is a tribute to Arsenault's mother of the same name, exploring the difficulties of motherhood, choosing when to nurture and when to leave children to the throes of experience. "Look Up" approaches this experience from more of a first hand perspective, watching friends come and go as the world turns without any constants. "Sick" lays a haunting synthesizer foundation as Arsenault explores this coming and going even with those you find the very closest to you ("it's not in love you rip the child to pieces and crush his little voice inside your broken heart"). The fear leads to reclusion and anger, and on "Suffer", Mas Ysa turns up the heat for a spiteful bridge-burner whose incessant bass is only outmatched by Arsenault's own fury. But wait, isn't this the guy that was striving after seraph-like purity only a couple tracks ago? Arsenault isn't afraid to embrace the duality of our nature. On ballad "Gun", he shows how the tide rises and falls in the midst of love and relationship. Our connection with others seems to bring out our best and our worst.

Seraph comes to a climax at "Garden", a synth-piano driven trip through the Garden of Eden, with Mas Ysa at the helm. "I guess this garden's good... the snake won't bite you but his master should come down. Are you coming down?" It's a totally chilling little bit where you realize Arsenault is asking who is truly in control of the snake - is it God or the devil? Maybe this is our human problem with love and goodness: it's an other-worldly thing. But if it comes down into our lives, we can be better off. For the rest of the record, Arsenault plays with the dynamic of this give and take relationship. "Arrows" explodes into the most brilliant musical display on the album, before "I Have Some" cools things down again running into the finale. On Worth, Arsenault's unflinching focus made every track a maximalist opus, without a single unintentional moment. With its longer run time, Seraph sees Mas Ysa easing up a bit. Tracks like "Arrows" and "Look Up" are still an inconceivable feat of engineering, but its in the grittier back and forth that the emotional details of every track can come to life.

Seraph ends with a familiar sentiment given new context. "Don't Make" is a classic "if you love someone, let them go" type song, but Arsenault's intentions ending seraph don't have to do with freedom - they have to do with expectation. We tend to put our loved ones on a pedestal, hoping they will never disappoint us, and that love someone equates to constant satisfaction and perfect relationship. But in the catastrophic highs and lows of the record, we end knowing this is simply not the case. We strive after love, but it comes and goes, and we must remain ourselves in the meantime. As Mas Ysa has shown us on two records now, that struggle to remain can be a visceral one. But the lows are balanced by brilliant highs, and in the end, the glowing hopefulness of Seraph outweighs the burden of sorrow. Seraph is a record that reminds us of ourselves, if at times a bit too much to bear.

Seraph is out now on Downtown Records. Mas Ysa just wrapped up a tour with Tanlines and will play a record release show at Baby's All Right this week. Check his Facebook page for any future live dates in support of Seraph.

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