[24 February 2010]
Anyone who’s ever been in a band knows the frustration of Complications (yes, with a capital C). You can spend hours debating what night to practice that fits in with everyone’s work schedules, school schedules, kid’s daycare schedules, etc., only for someone to cancel a couple of hours prior at the last minute because “something came up”, and you’re left with the unsavory prospect of a practice without a crucial member of your team. Worse yet is when someone relocates; do you continue trying to work around the distance, or do you replace them and have to start all over again with a new member, taking time off from gigging to do so?
The Mercury Program have stayed together despite the woes of relocated band members, maintaining their home base in Gainesville and occasionally reassembling to work on a new album or play a show or two. Essentially though, they’ve fallen victim to one of the most feared phrases in any music fan’s heart: the extended hiatus.
Well no worries, because in the reunion-happy 2000s, the Mercury Program have seen fit to reassemble and finish off that long-in-the-works follow up to their excellent 2003 split EP with Maserati, The Confines of Heat. Chez Viking is evidence of a group that has seen many changes over its lengthy career, subtly innovating and improving on their aesthetic while never straying too far from their unique individual sound.
One thing listeners familiar with TMP will notice right off is that the intensity they’re known for hasn’t gone anywhere. The same restless kinetic energy that makes the band such a thrilling live act is again conveyed to tape here. Pulsing, delayed guitars echo and shatter over clattering percussion and spidery keys. The Tortoise and Maserati comparisons that have always followed the band are still applicable, but with Chez Viking they step a little further away from such shadows and into a more unique spectrum of their own.
The disc’s self-titled opener is a suitably upbeat call to arms, a reassertion of form and of direction, while “Arrived/Departed” is a bit darker in tone, a sense of foreboding creeping into the framework of things with each echo of guitar, each delicate piano note. When the song open’s up, it’s with a quiet majesty rather than a brutal crushing force. “Backseat Blackout” strikes me as a bit more Tortoise-like than much of Chez Viking, but unexpected touches like a burst of furious Sonic Youth feedback keep the song from being rote.
Not all of the album keeps up such a frenetic pace, however. “Katos” is the kind of laidback chillout lounge-jazz that will make you further regret Stereolab’s own extended hiatus, while “Stand & Sing” is almost Album Leaf-like with its pastoral keys and stuttering percussion. And for its first two-thirds, “The Church of Cause & Effect” plays out like the best Bono-free U2 song ever written (if only we were so lucky).
I’ve always been of a mind that an album’s closing track should sum up what came before in a nice, conclusive package. Here, closer “Fluorescent Laces” encapsulates best the Mercury Program template. It’s a fitting way to end an album that is both a reassertion of group purpose and a gleeful, celebratory welcome-back party. Chez Viking, all in all is a solid release, and one that makes you fervently hope that Gainesville’s finest won’t take another six or seven years to grace us with their presence. In a past year when we lost great old-school post-rock traditionalists like The Six Parts Seven to their own extended hiatus, it’s important for those remaining to keep the vibraphone flag flying. Mercury Program, please stick around for a bit, okay?