The Microphones are yet another in the long line of bands and artists that I've found myself getting into long after the majority of music listeners on this planet. There's only so much money in my pocketbook and only so much time in the day to actively seek out different artists, but I'm glad that I finally hopped on board. Just so I wasn't handed a complete shock (as I'd heard that Mount Eerie was a bit of a departure for the group), I started my education with The Glow, Part 2, and enjoyed the heck out of the somewhat rag-tag bunch of songs that seeped with vitality.
It's true that after listening to that disc, I was somewhat confused by Mount Eerie, as many people would be. It's less a collection of songs, and more a stream of consciousness. It's likely more challenging than anything that the group has ever done, yet has some of the best pure moments of sound that I've heard on a release this year. In places, it seems downright over-the-top, but it's also hard to argue against. Like everything else I've heard that Phil Elvrum has had a hand in, it surges with vitality and even if that feeling is somewhat obtuse at times, it still manages to be potent.
The entire theme of the album could easily be an absolute disaster in the hands of others, as the five tracks on the album step along, tackling more and more difficult subjects (just scan the track titles of "The Sun," "Solar System," "Mount Eerie," and the two-part "Universe"). Fortunately, it doesn't take itself dead-serious, and it's those few breaths of air that allow the whole thing to come off at all, as it plays out more like a 40-minute rock (albeit an experimental one) opera than a typical album. The album opener of "The Sun" begins with what sounds like the lonely call boats at sea, which slowly morphs into a clipped rhythm of deep bass before tribal-sounding drums eventually envelope the whole thing. With about one-third of the track left, it all drops off and Elvrum sings a lament to the glowing orb while sounding like he's going to fail from exhaustion. Instrumentally, clipped and cut guitar, chimes, and ocassional background vocals provide an oddly compelling backdrop before the entire thing rushes headlong into waves of static.
At 17 minutes, the opening track is ambitious to say the least, but things don't get a lot clearer from there. "Solar System" is the most 'normal' track on the disc, a fairly basic acoustic-guitar backed track on which Elvrum gains strength and continues on before things again take a strange turn with distorted drums and chimes on the first part of "Universe." That in turn gives way to the first part of a song that sounds fairly normal, but soon shifts into an odd call-and-response with otherwordly vocals take the track to an operatic level as the timing goes off-kilter, the instrumentation drops out, and falsetto vocal drones tail into the next track.
If you're still following, you'll be rewarded with what is easily the most odd and enjoyable track on the entire release in the album-titled "Mount Eerie." With Elvrum singing a quiet round over an almost greek chorus and horns, huge drums burst in and overtake everything, shooting the track into a bizarro-world in which death speaks to the main character over thick squalls of guitars and a deliciously malicious background chorus of harpies. Upon first listen, it sounds like Elvrum might have been listening to too much Lloyd Weber when concocting the track, but upon further listens becomes absolutely indispensable.
The album closes with the main character speaking from beyond the grave, and it's again set to very ominous background instrumentation, as deep horns sound and a chorus adds haunting vocals accompaniment. Given all of the above, this is a release that not only tackles subjects that could easily come off as cracker-jack philosophy, but despite the somewhat dark subject matter of the release (eventual death), a sense of hope comes through in that it also sounds like it was an absolute blast to create. It's all over the board in terms of sound, with influences of ambient, found-sound, collage, tribal, choral, and good old indie-rock, and the fact that they pull things off at all is a pretty big accomplishment. Much more weighty than its 41 minute running time, this is a release that will most likely not sink in on the first listen. Give it a couple more, however, and you might just find yourself as won over as I am.