I went to my local record shop to place a few orders the other day and my friend who runs it asked if I had listened to this new record from Mountains. I said I was planning to review it, but I also blabbed out some line about it being an amorphous music blob that would probably sit on the to-do pile a little longer. My friend agreed with me but we got a little deeper into it and I put forward the idea that perhaps this kind of soft, organic spaciousness is a far different experience if you happen to be living your days out in a city.
The gurgling activity that jostles behind the broader sweeping drones on ‘map table’ seems to focus on the minutiae (colonies of insects, dust) while the grander swathes of synth evoke a universal context. At this Mountains are skilled but I am still not sure why or when I would want to listen to Choral. This morning I thought I should give it another go, while I remain locked in a “computer vs. the outside” battle, which the sun stirred up this morning.
If I spent my day commuting in and out of a metropolis, driving a vehicle in traffic or walking the strict interlocking paths of an urban maze I can imagine that this album could act as a hot-air balloon straight up to the jet stream. But that analogy isn’t very far from an “alka-seltzer to your hang over” comparison, which is a very dubious way to approach music. I’ve always been into the music that doesn’t shrink the cancer to a manageable level, but instead suggests that you’re going to have to rip it out with your own hands. Let alone the fact that there are a lot of records out there, which to most people will sound just like this, if not better…
Some people love ambient drone so much that they listen beyond Eno, Steve Hillage, Harold Budd (and even recent exponents like the excellent and under-appreciated Pan American) for every nuance and twist that can be summoned from the technique. Others (like myself) cherry-pick what sound like unique and individual voices from an ocean of murmurs. Which is not easy, I’m certain I have overlooked some glorious records for fear of getting lost in the ambient section (sorry, “experimental” seems to be the more politically correct term these days).
Another question is: Should a record of drones made up of soft and expansive synths, accordions, very simple acoustic guitar playing and the odd processed vocal be judged on the skill of its parts? Or the endlessness of its delay and the depth of its cavernous reverb? Because this is, after all, a very simple technique featuring very simple playing via sensitive knob twiddling. When another acquaintance of mine hears me playing music like this he dumbfoundedly asks me “you mean people buy this!?” He has a lot of musical toys and has many tapes of him playing around with sounds like these. It wouldn’t take much for him to make a record like this if he chose to. He considers it to be no more than playing around because once people have already mastered the technique you’ve got to be damn inventive or persistent to make something fresh. I agree with him, there’s nothing wrong with playing around, but do you have the right to market it as worth buying?
When I played him some William Basinski however, his ears pricked up and his tail started wagging. Same goes for the Aidan Baker record I reviewed here. So I stand by my intuition that there are people out there who can take this kind of minimalism to new and exciting places (and it doesn’t have to be a phenomenally skilled composition). If you’d never heard Music for Airports you might think Mountains make revolutionary music, god knows it took me a long while to realise quite how little distance experimental music has travelled since the 70’s. The massive changes in recording technology have only altered the end result in the way that the arrival of acrylic paints changed painting. The equipment is virtual, cheaper and easily obtained, it is also more forgiving and memory, unlike tape, is almost infinitely re-writeable and can be spliced by the clumsiest producer. Gone are the days (before I was born) when you could be the first person in your group of friends to own a Roland Space Echo.
I’ve lost the track a little here, but the humming of Choral hasn’t given me reason or inspiration enough to return to it. It’s good enough though: calm, mellifluous and earthily cosmic in a full and pervasive way.
You know those John Miller paintings that you often see in people’s bathrooms? Well, this isn’t far off being the musical equivalent, and that isn’t intended as a backhanded insult. I know a lot of people who would like this album and I will be mentioning it to them. If it were being used as a soundtrack it would operate well as a channel for the emotion of the film to pass through and could become quite moving. As a standalone listen I personally find it imitative and predictable, almost dinner-party music.
There’s just far too much good stuff out there for me to ever be returning to this record.