Piano deepens ‘Hexagon,’ Filligar’s latest indie-rock release

Filligar performed in fraternites, on the Green and through Friday Night Rock when its members were students at the College.

With a 30-second ballad piano introduction, “New Local,” the first track on Filligar’s new album “Hexagon,” begins. The unusual start to a gritty rock album hints at one of the most striking elements of the album’s sound. Filligar’s extensive use of piano is often absent in an indie-rock world dominated by varying levels of electric guitar gain.

“Hexagon” is the group’s fifth full-length release under the name Filligar. Composed of Johnny Mathias ’11, Pete Mathias ’09, Teddy Mathias ’09 and pianist and childhood friend Casey Gibson, the band kicks off a headlining tour in Chicago tomorrow to promote the album’s release. Filligar, featured in CMJ’s mixtape this month, received a “best new music” designation by American Songwriter Magazine earlier this month. Other album tracks showcase the piano that distinguishes “New Local.” In “Knock Yourself Out,” Gibson’s full chords and moving melodies add another voice to each chorus, while a bluesy piano line jousts with drummer Pete Mathias’s djembe in “Ozona.”

Yet Filligar is not without its garage guitar-rock roots. “Lock and Key,” a White Stripes-esque anthem, has a crunchy guitar sound that leads us along the track’s steady march. The following track, “Money on a Dark Horse,” spans almost eight minutes and entrances us with full-throttle guitar gain and distortion.

“Culture Bleach,” another high point, has a bass line that will make your subwoofer’s cones flap and a chorus that echoes the verses with an open hi-hat and hard power chords.

Showing a slightly less abrasive sound, “Atlas” lets the band’s vocal harmonies shine. A arpeggiated guitar meanders through the track’s first half and later builds to the group’s full power.

Some songs foster a more festival-like mood. The closing track “El Trepador” starts with some clean guitar strumming a rare sound on the record and leaves the listener refreshed, like closing notes lingering in the air as the lights rise at the end of a show.

Lead singer and guitarist Johnny Mathias said these varied moods reflect the different ambiances the band encounters in venues on tour.

“Each song kind of brings its own mood to the table,” he said.

The album, recorded in one- or two-week spurts over a year, contains 12 of Filligar’s latest tracks. Because Filligar released “Hexagon” in intervals, the band could play some of its new material before it went to the studio.

“Every album in the past has been a long and tense recording session until the project is finished,” Johnny Mathias said. “It was a really nice process to not be so buttoned-up and isolated.”

Filligar recorded across three studios in both Chicago and Los Angeles, and worked with engineers including the front of house manager for Counting Crows, with whom Filligar toured last year.

On the road, the band listens to new releases and music across genres, which influences their writing.

“We don’t really have a blueprint for writing,” Johnny Mathias said. “It keeps it exciting for us.”

Gibson said that working structures from Filligar’s “The Nerve” (2010) served as the base for its new album.

The three Mathias brothers and Gibson formed Filligar in Chicago in 2000. The group survived Gibson’s move to Wisconsin during high school and remained active through their college years. They exchanged ideas and crude song recordings throughout high school and college, first through AOL email and later through file sharing services like Dropbox.

While students, Filligar toured during interim breaks and played several shows at Dartmouth and Hamilton College, where Gibson was studying. At the College, the group performed on the Green, at Friday Night Rock and in fraternity shows.

“Playing at Dartmouth and Hamilton were both really cool experiences to have as a band,” Johnny Mathias said.

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