If you really want to understand the concept of spacetime, take a left at I20 or I30 out of Dallas. Within minutes, the Gotham City architecture of the vaguely ominous-sounding Metroplex fades into its ozone driven mist, given over to hillier farmland and actual trees. It’s a sparse landscape, dotted here and there with roadside fruit stands, southern cafes, old school gas stations and the occasional Dairy Queen. It’s a pocket of Texas that lies between Dallas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and it’s a world unto itself.
I think of Dallas as where the west begins — at least the urban west of the 21st century. It’s just the way people born in East Texas think, and with good reason. East Texas is the last bastion of the old south, albeit an odd hybrid of southern charm and outlaw mentality. East Texas is a microcosmic society that’s pretty much set in its ways, and doesn’t welcome change with open arms. It may seem quaint and picturesque, but beneath that veneer, it’s repressive. Big city ways are looked at with a wary eye, at best. Dallas represents a two-edged sword — it’s an Oz of magic and release, or a cesspool of corruption.
Environments like that unwittingly breed a rebellious creativity. Don Henley and Tommy Lee Jones both come from East Texas. In fact, it’s given birth to artists, filmmakers, musicians, and writers too numerous to mention here. And here’s why: restless minds in East Texas have to, by necessity, create their own versions of New York, London and Los Angeles. There aren’t a lot of venues in Grand Saline or Sulphur Springs, or even Tyler that cater to cosmopolitan tastes. It’s simply not a priority there. As a result, a lot of creative projects that have their roots in East Texas take on a voice that couldn’t have come from anywhere else.
Fair to Midland, billed as a Dallas band, but actually hailing from Sulphur Springs, succinctly illustrates that point. Even the band’s name is a take on what passes as a pun in East Texas. It goes something like this: First guy: “How ya doin?” Second guy: “Fair to middlin’, clear to Odessa.” Get it?—middlin’, Midland… you had to be there, I guess. Oddly enough, East Texas is not known as a comedy hotbed. Over the years, though, it’s been the unlikely breeding ground for a lot of equally unlikely music. With Fables from a Mayfly: What I Tell You Three Times is True, Fair to Midland poise themselves to carry that unlikely tradition to a new generation.
In the past, East Texas has spawned peculiar strains of psychedelica (13th Floor Elevators), blues guitar (Bugs Henderson), punk (Mouse and the Traps) and jazz-based honky tonk (way too many to even try to name), all with an indelible signature that’s all but invisible to anybody who hasn’t lived there. With this release, Fair to Midland attempt to crossbreed the arty aspirations of prog rock with the baser instincts of thrash metal. It’s a valiant effort to be sure, but it often suffers from overcompensation.
It’s understandable to an extent — Fables from a Mayfly is the band’s major label debut, one of the first from the newly formed Serjical Strike label, itself a wing of the recently coined Universal Republic imprint. Serjikal Strike is helmed by Serj Tankian, lead singer of System of a Down, and as such, is a niche label of sorts. FTM fit into that niche, and apparently were hurriedly groomed to deliver some “product.” The band had already released work on their own that wasn’t too shabby, most of it on their independently released inter.funda.stifle. That provided enough material for half of Fables from a Mayfly. Major labels operating the way they do, those tracks had to be redone to lend the release an air of originality. David Botrill, who had worked with Peter Gabriel and Tool, was brought in to produce and generally polish the older tunes. They added five new tunes to flesh out the album, and succeeded in getting out their product.
That’s where the problem with Fables from a Mayfly lies. There’s not that much unique or even original about FTM—they rarely stray far from the metal blueprints laid out in the late nineties. They’re taking their cues from the likes of Queensryche and System of a Down, particularly on the title track. Some of this can be attributed to Botrill’s slick, heavy-handed production, grounded more in the American Idol mindset of manufacturing a sensation than enhancing the artist’s raw material. Still, once the layers of slick production are stripped away, hints of the band’s potential peek through the veneer.
Bands from East Texas have always melded a number of styles into their music, and FTM is no exception. I always attributed that to the rural roots, and the fact that you learned what you like pretty much on your own. In the case of FTM, their love of melody and art rock lyrics is juxtaposed with goth and hardcore metal. It’s jarring at times, and leaves you with the distinct feeling they’re still trying to figure out what it is exactly they’re trying to accomplish. They’ll figure it out, assuming they’re not swallowed by a hit-hungry machine. In the meantime, Fables from a Mayfly is one of those albums that we can hopefully look back on with fondness as to how it all began.