28 Apr 2009: The Music Gallery Toronto, ON
Above all else, the Music Gallery is a very civilized venue for a concert. Operating out of a series of locations around Toronto since it was founded in 1976, and situated at St. George the Martyr Church since 2001, the Music Gallery is “a publicly assisted centre for the creation, development and performance of art music from all genres,” which means that you don’t tend to get screaming crowds or inconsiderate drunkards. Shows start promptly and end at more reasonable hours than most in Toronto do. Not exactly your typical club venue, but the Brooklyn-based, blissfully droney duo Mountains fit right in.
Two local drone/noise luminaries, both of whom satisfied and provoked in turn, preceded Mountains. Ayal Senior’s Spacechurch (consisting of, uh, Ayal Senior) provided a bracingly noisy performance, the rapidly shifting nature of which was its primary virtue and weakness. Whenever Senior locked into a particularly satisfying melody or noise he’d move away from it frustratingly quickly, but by the same token when things weren’t working for you, you only had to wait a minute or so for it to pass. Matthew “Doc” Dunn, meanwhile, started his set with a few minutes of quiet, lambent, slowly accreting pedal steel noise (ably supported by a few guests, whose names I didn’t catch). Once things got a bit more overt I missed the charm of the barely-there initial melodies and the way they seemed to float beneath the music, but Dunn’s set was still an often-beautiful flow of high lonesome sound not a million miles away from Earth’s recent work.
But as intriguing and often compelling as the openers were, within minutes of Brandon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp picking up their acoustic guitars (supplemented with voice, singing bowl, a miniature harmonium called a Shruti Box, and subtle electronics) and beginning their composition/set, the difference was clear. Befitting an act like Mountains that doesn’t make songs in the conventional sense, they didn’t play material from Choral or their other albums (they did have a very good tour CD-R with an earlier version of what they’re currently playing live, however). But if I had to explain the impact of the show to someone already familiar with the band (and you should be), I would say that Mountains managed to sustain the surging euphoria of “Choral” for most of the length of their forty minute set.
Part of just how beautiful and enrapturing Mountains’ performance was stems from proximity and volume. Their densely layered sound was a physical presence in room, rumbling our pews slightly but never hurting the ears. And unlike a lot of similar groups, even the physical acts of the performance were intriguing, seeing firsthand how each oncoming wave was formed—this one with acoustic guitar and voice, that with a marble and some corn kernels dropped into the singing bowl, all of them building on drones they’d been patiently establishing. The ending was a bit abrupt and unwelcome—the music didn’t quite stop dead in its tracks, but it certainly didn’t ebb away as patiently and gracefully as it had come into being. Mostly that sudden stop was unwelcome just because it meant the set was over. When the room suddenly went quiet there was a pause as the audience gathered its senses, and then a further pause as we hoped that Anderegg and Holtkamp would begin playing something else. But once we accepted that Mountains were done, the room burst into applause.
Shows like this, that are more about the physical presence of sound in the room and the gradual accretion of noise, are often a risky proposition live and drone bands in general are often hit and miss. But the steady accumulation of beauty that Mountains managed at the Music Gallery was beautiful enough that, as special a show as it was, it was hard not to wish a much larger group had heard it. The crowd was sizeable for a Music Gallery show (it’s not a large church), but like a lot of their programming it was hard to walk out of the venue into the rest of the city without feeling that the people walking down the street had really missed something special. Right now Mountains live are an experience not quite like anything else the average PopMatters reader is likely to hear, and one devoutly not to be missed.