Since seeing Mount Eerie at Le Poisson Rouge a week ago, I’ve been really enjoying this snarling, squalling track, which sounds a little bit like Burzum covering Neu! (in a burning church). Considering their fixation with nature, Mount Eerie’s heavy recording-studio manipulations are particularly surprising — where other groups with similar themes might simply complement their music with naturalistic recording, artifice and technology are constantly encroaching on Mount Eerie’s music. When Phil Elverum wants to start singing in “Pale Lights”, he audaciously turns down the volume of the hammering Krautrock instrumental until it’s hardly audible, then sings quietly and calmly above the din. It’s startling and wonderful.
Loren Connors and Mount Eerie at Le Poisson Rouge last night.
Connors’ set achieved a surprising tonal and dynamic variation from minimal ingredients. He created glassy, atonal figures from delicate minor eleventh barre chords — playing through heavy echo, his electric guitar sounded like the complex harmonics of metal chimes. When he turned on a slowly sweeping auto wah pedal, Connors sounded like the alien texture of early atonal electronic music — an effect made even stranger because, from up close, I could hear the acoustic sound of his strings before their electric transmutation.
Though I was aware of him, this was the first time I’d heard Connors. I was expecting his playing to work more like Bill Orcutt’s, which I think of as being essentially post-technical: it’s connected to existing blues styles, but hypercharges and abstracts them. By contrast, Connors’ guitar seems more pre-technical. This isn’t saying that he’s an untalented player — he displayed an exceptional control of his timbre, and a calculated sense of narrative development — but the physical act of performance seems more central to Connors’ style. He’s had Parkinson’s disease for something like twenty years, and seemed to have difficulty walking onto the stage. Seen in this light, Connors’ playing — in which he contorts his body awkwardly and builds to aggressive manipulations of his strings — seems like an intense personal exploration of the body.
Mount Eerie, on the other hand, were at ease — Phil Elverum’s five-piece crew even brought along a fake fireplace for the middle of the stage, and politely poured each other coffee from a carafe between songs. “We’re from the Pacific north-west”, he said; “get it?”
When I saw Mount Eerie almost exactly a year ago, Elverum was only accompanied by two keyboardists. This lineup created a focus on the band’s more ambient material that suited them poorly. Though obsessed with nature, Elverum is no naïf. Mount Eerie’s music is capable of showing how we can be intimately related to the natural world, but also in its brutal, black metal-influenced moments, it reflects how impersonal and violent nature can also be — after one distorted squall had receded, Elverum sang that he’s “totally at peace with the meaningless of living”. Adding a rhythm section enabled Mount Eerie to effectively render both sides of its music, the whisperingly intimate and the crushingly massive — the bassist’s aggressive fuzz added a particularly welcome heft to the sound. Particular highlights were the pulverizing, off-kilter Krautrock of “Pale Lights” and “Clear Moon”, which moved from a doom drone appropriate for the huge Sunn O))) amp Elverum was using to quietly gorgeous close harmonies with the female bassist.
“The Glow Pt. 2”
Taken from the album The Glow Pt. 2.
I miss the Microphones. Sure, Phil Elv(e)rum, as Mount Eerie, is still producing great stuff — Wind’s Poem folds in black metal signifiers (and lyrical allusions to Burzum!), creating a novel hybrid — but even so, his post-Glow pt. 2 stuff has lost some of the quality that hit me especially hard.
This stylistic difference is especially apparent, since it’d be pretty easy to make a reliable checklist of features you might find in an archetypal Microphones song. Abrupt structural shifts; aggressive stereo panning of the acoustic guitars, doubled notes bouncing between speakers; those drums, spectacularly over-miced, exploding into the mix and shredding the fabric of the sound.
The Microphones’ music was still totally bracing, in spite of the potential for the unique aesthetic to become formulaic. Even so, I can imagine why Elvrum would have needed to move past it. In Pitchfork’s review for Destroyer’s Trouble in Dreams, William Bowers writes that, in Dan Bejar’s songwriting, “what were once singular eccentricities now have become anticipatable”; by pulling away from his most conspicuous techniques, the Microphones/Mount Eerie avoided creative stagnation — at the cost of losing some of the weird charm present throughout It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water and The Glow pt. 2.
“The Glow pt. 2” is basically the thesis statement for this peak era of Microphones music: it’s a fine example of Elvrum’s lyrical obsession with a kind of domestic surrealism suffused with dense nature imagery, and the tumbling song structure is surprising but makes an odd kind of sense. And above all is that dense sound, which might be clipped and distorted but is always thicker and more physical than any lo-fi.