Friday, September 7, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Mount Eerie - Clear Moon & Ocean Roar


Recommended by Danny Spiteri.

It is difficult not to admire Phil Elverum's long-standing consistency. Over a decade has passed since the inception of the Washington-based singer/songwriter's breakthrough project, The Microphones, yet his track record has suffered few missteps, and not due to the absence of risks. Sure, Phil's signature brand of gloomy, analog-recorded indie folk has remained at the base of his music throughout these years, but his openness to the influence of normally unassociated genres has lent it a dynamic level of uniqueness.

This acceptance began clearly manifesting itself on The Microphones' first widely noted album, It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, which was the first to advance the project's former lo-fi noise pop formula in favor of a more distinctive sound. The release saw Phil integrating grainy folk styling into the fuzzy guitar rock and tape experiments of his previous albums, allowing acoustic sounds to take the front seat. The Glow Pt. 2, The Microphones' 2001 LP, is understandably considered by many to be the pinnacle of Phil's work, developing the aesthetic introduced on It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water into a sprawling, dense opus. Its followup, 2003's Mount Eerie, was a departing statement of sorts for The Microphones. By way of five songs varying from average lengths to one that exceeds seventeen minutes, Phil crafted a story depicting his own death and subsequent encounter with the Universe, resulting in an ambitious epic that supplied proper closure to his roles both as the band's protagonist and its creative mastermind. With the exception of one live release, Mount Eerie was the final album to be released under the The Microphones moniker, signifying the transition into the project's next incarnation, Mount Eerie.

By no means did Mount Eerie abandon The Microphones' sound completely, but it nonetheless took the project's penchant for exploration into new corners. Whether he was collaborating with former Eric's Trip member Julie Doiron on Lost Wisdom, employing the use of old school electronic percussion on Eleven Old Songs, tapping into his louder side on the punk-influenced Black Wooden Ceiling Opening EP, or taking on an even more abrasive form with Wind's Poem's flirtations with black metal, Phil stayed true to one trait: an unwavering resistance to formulaic trappings. It is this open-mindedness which has helped Phil to maintain his appeal over the many years he has been releasing music, and what keeps him interesting throughout both of this year's new Mount Eerie offerings, Clear Moon and Ocean Roar.

It is clear from the start of Clear Moon that many of Phil's distinguishing qualities, such as the creatively panned acoustic guitars, soft-spoken singing, nature-oriented lyrics, and emotionally resonant songwriting, are far from absent. Opener "Through the Trees Pt. 2" executes each of these with especially delicate finesse, offering some of the album's most potent melodies, and allowing them to build alongside rising instrumentation and gorgeous female background vocals over slow, subtle percussion. "The Place Lives" takes the brooding nature of this song into a heavier extreme with its wall of acoustic guitar strums, lumbering drums, thick, distorted electric guitar, and buried vocals. Its softer successor is the similarly titled "The Place I Live," which joins together a hanging synthesizer pad, Phil's expectedly understated voice, and a set of carefully woven female vocal parts.

By this point, the record's sonic themes seem to be established: droning atmosphere, a balance of acoustic and distorted guitar, slow-paced drums, and intimately sung vocals. Other influences begin manifesting themselves, however, on the first "(something)" - it's a name Phil often uses for interludes - a short ambient piece. Album highlight "Lone Bell" features a particularly memorable horn line, and its comparably strong followup "House Shape" exhibits a notable Krautrock influence in its semi-Motorik beat and minimalistic structure. The most prominent use of drone follows with the relatively abrasive "Over Dark Water," in which hymn-like female vocals and Phil's hauntingly quiet voice are laid upon a bed of low-end guitar, eventually unfolding into an explosive flurry of drum noise. The second "(something)" functions as a similar yet shorter version of the first, providing a brief yet satisfactory moment of respite. The long, patient title track comes next, spreading sparsely arranged instrumentation over a minimalistic form. Phil even Auto-Tunes some of his vocals, which, despite my usually not-so-bright view of the effect as a stylistic choice, adds a fresh angle to his sound. However, despite some interesting ideas, it doesn't quite justify its position as the longest track on the LP. Without greatly affecting melodies or captivating sounds to carry all of its weight, slogging through the seven minutes the song exceeds can feel like a bit of a chore. Though not an extreme misstep, it is the only spot on Clear Moon that truly felt like a pothole. Fortunately, the pace picks back up with the penultimate track, the somewhat stripped down but beautiful "Yawning Sky," before closing with another pleasurable lone synthesizer feature, the appropriately titled "(synthesizer)."

A few months later, we arrived at Ocean Roar, Mount Eerie's second release of 2012. It was reportedly recorded during the same sessions as Clear Moon, but was separated into its own record due to its significantly darker character. This grimmer personality is clear immediately within the opening seconds of "Pale Lights," the tremendous, 10-minute long first track. Sinister organ chords set the stage before a set of distorted drones and pummeling drums make a powerful entrance, introducing an eerily hypnotic groove. In a somewhat unusual yet interesting move, the instrumentation fades to a nearly inaudible volume near the middle of the track, allowing a chilling vocal passage from Phil to take the forefront. The band eventually regains its volume, carrying the rest of the song out with a trance-inducing flair. With its now full-on Motorik rhythms and emphasized repetition, the song successfully both capitalizes on the references Clear Moon standout "House Shape" made to Krautrock and takes that album's drone influence into more extreme territory.

The LP follows with the title track, another collaboration between Phil and a female vocalist, which turns out to be one of its mellowest and most conventionally beautiful moments. The sparse "Ancient Times" comes next, featuring only Phil's voice, spacious piano, field recordings, and what sounds like airy, toneless guitar noise; it doesn't offer a great deal on its own, but it provides a nice break in dynamic before a return to abrasion. The instrumental that follows wields a sense of foreboding dread, building on a creeping 6/8 rhythm with suspenseful guitar drones, trudging piano notes, and a mysterious, high-pitched melody. If it truly is foreshadowing some impending doom, it's "Waves," a relentless onslaught of black metal-reminiscent guitars and crushing percussion that is broken up only by brief verse that Phil delivers at about the halfway point. The heaviness continues on "Engel Der Luft," a cover of a piece from Krautrock/New Age band Popol Vuh's score to Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. Contrasting the serene nature of the original, Mount Eerie maintains its approach to distorted guitar and rough percussion, creating an intense and significantly harsher reinterpretation. Afterward, the reflective "I Walked Home Beholding" marks Ocean Roar's momentary return to its more sensitive side, in which Phil's tender, observational narrative takes the listener inside the imagery of his world a final time before one last wordless song closes the album. This instrumental turns out to be one of the LP's strongest tracks; in addition to offering some of the most compelling guitar drones on the record, the reintroduction of Krautrock-style drumming produces an element of spellbinding repetition similar to that of "Pale Lights," bringing the album and its eclectic array of influences full circle.

Although both records stand tall as some of the finest works in Phil's discography, Clear Moon edges out Ocean Roar in my own book. The latter comes nowhere near being devoid of substance, but the songwriting on most of Clear Moon carries a level of emotional resonance that Ocean Roar doesn't quite reach. Though I can recognize that Ocean Roar's loud sections are built to evoke different feelings than the others, even the quieter, more introspective songs (e.g. "Ocean Roar," "I Walked Home Beholding) aren't quite as gripping as the bulk of Clear Moon. Its large reliance on repetitive instrumentals also leaves it feeling less fleshed out than it could be. However, it also possesses positive facets that are absent in Clear Moon, most considerably the stimulating effect of its noisy, consuming disposition, and its deeper experimentation with Krautrock and drone influences.

Above all, Clear Moon and Ocean Roar represent a fascinating new chapter in Phil's career. His ever-evolving sound has once again taken intriguing new turns, yet his core talent is as present as ever: an invaluable ability to make ambitious and challenging music that is never too difficult, but rather is endearingly human, relatable, and consistently striking.

Clear Moon Score: Light 9

Ocean Roar Score: Light 8

(Do you prefer being serenaded by Clear Moon or pummeled by Ocean Roar? Let me know on Twitter.)

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