If you weren't there, this 'live' album is a thing of beauty. If you were, it's a little more frustrating.
I adore these guys. I love their live show. I said that their concert was "an experience not quite like anything else the average PopMatters reader is likely to hear, and one devoutly not to be missed," and although Etching isn't quite a live album, it's the closest thing you're going to get. Originally a tour CD-R (now on heavily limited vinyl with an MP3 download included, as is de rigueur these days) recorded at home live with no overdubs, it's a faithful rendition of what they've been playing on tour. And yet, I'm a little underwhelmed.
Home listeners unlucky enough to live somewhere where Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp haven't come to visit ought to breathe easy, though. I'm pretty sure that if you haven't already seen them live, Etching is an unmitigated success. As long as the duo's tracks can get on record, this is the first time they've really stretched out, and given 38 minutes to play with, they get really deep. The first Mountains record where you can really hear a bit of Kosmische/Tangerine Dream influence, here they keep the burbling joy of their normal, pastoral sound, but stretch out their drones into a more relaxed form. It's spacey and spacious and spends much of its time coming at the listener in endless waves of gorgeous sound. I'm not sure Etching has a climax; it's pretty much all one high from the opening minutes on, although there's a little ebb and flow in the middle. Working on such a broad canvas and in such a stream-of-consciousness kind of way does mean that this is a bit less immediately identifiable as Mountains (their work normally carries such a strong personal stamp and style that it's hard to miss), but the payoff is worth that trade.
But as I said when I saw them in April, "part of just how beautiful and enrapturing Mountains’ performance was stems from proximity and volume." Listening to Etching makes me realize how true that really is. These are the same sounds (roughly) I was hearing then, but they've gone from mind-blowing to pretty. Unlike a lot of drone groups, when playing live Anderegg and Holtkamp have an excellent grasp of just how loud they can get and still sound comfortable, even comforting -- live, all that sound was almost like a heavy blanket wrapping you up. No matter how loud I crank my speakers, the CD version just can't compare, but until someone invents a way to actually pack a true live experience onto a disc, no CD version could. The reduction in impact is relatively slight, but it's enough to take things from slightly better than the albums (the live show) to ever-so-slightly less compelling than the albums (this disc). Given how amazing Mountains, Sewn, and Choral all are, that means Etching is still pretty damn good.