[31 March 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
For all Koen Holtkamp’s work with organic instrumentation, both solo and as part of the duo Mountains, the musical results can so often sound alien in their beauty. Holtkamp starts with guitars, percussions, the stuff of more traditional bands, before treating them through pedals and computers. But there’s another element of the organic in Holtkamp’s music. New movements often start with a moment captured on stage in performance.
He shifts away from this second piece of the organic on his new album, Motion. Instead, the first three pieces here—“Between Visible Things”, “Vert” and “Crotales”—were all built from the group up in the studio. It infuses them with a chilly atmosphere that works to subtle shift Holtkamp’s usual ambient shimmer into something icier. All three numbers work to build a shining veneer and then new elements pierce through that surface. “Between Visible Things” pulses and ripples with a wall of sound, a flurry of notes coming in a tidal ebb and flow that eventually gets interrupted by subterranean, muted melodies and skittering distant percussion. “Vert”, which runs almost the exact same time as its predecessor (nearly seven minutes), lays down a subtler bed of sound. The treated atmospheric notes are softer than those on “Between Visible Things”, but the interruption of them is more jarring, violent. Electric guitars, treated to sound like angry, giant buzzsaws, slash through the song in huge jagged cuts. The elements juxtapose each other more starkly here, but opposites end up cohering as their borders melt together.
“Crotales” inverts the usual process for Holtkamp and finds him using the synthetic to approximate the organic. Computer generated bass thumps and crotales (or antique cymbals), provide an arid foundation for some of the most sprawling synth work on the record. The tightened rhythms make for a more tense structure overall, and the song offers a taut counterpoint to the more wide-open songs that come before it. As the shortest song here, it could get lost, especially considering the final track, “Endlessness”, runs over 21 minutes. Instead, “Crotales” plays like a standout, a stranger combination of sound than “Between Visible Things” but a less violent clashing of elements than “Vert”. It’s in the sweet spot between those two strange poles.
“Endlessness” is on its own planet, though. It starts much in the way these other songs do. It establishes its surface, a faintly buzzing haze of analog synth sound. Spiraling sound treatments coil themselves around that surface, thickening the textures and expanding the breadth of sound over the third of the record. Then the blistering melodies of layered notes come in and puncture through the thick gauze. At the halfway point, having achieved all of this, “Endlessness” would be a more refined yet epic version of what came before. But it’s the second half of the song that truly fascinates. As the initial bed of sound fades away, the clear hooks turn to jumbled clusters of sound. Then these fade in favor of dry, snapping percussion and the distant hum of synths that seem to rev up momentarily and then die like an engine that just won’t turn over. This second half, with all these fading, distant elements, inverts all the density of the rest of Motion by scraping it out and replacing it with dark, shadowy negative space. It’s a haunting sound to be surrounded by. On a record so interested in poking holes in a veneer, it’s the most exciting and troubling and lasting moment when the veneer is gone, when that endlessness turns us also towards the unknown.
Motion becomes, then, a fascinating series of reversals and inversions. Mountains and Holtkamp have been around long enough that it’s hard not to have some expectations coming into a new record, and yet here Holtkamp subverts them just enough. The shift to more studio building does make that chilly feel a bit too uniform across the whole record, which keeps this just a half-step from excellence. But overall Motion is another brilliant turn for a great musician. His sound still rises and spreads, but now it also digs in, uncovers, implodes and gets lost in ways that suggest, despite all the breadth of sound he’s explored, he hasn’t yet run out of new territory to explore.