Mountains: Centralia

Thrill Jockey

No one ever accused Koen Holtcamp and Brendon Anderegg, the duo behind Mountains, of rushing things. They take their time getting music out there, and the music itself takes its time washing over you. Their compositions are big, all-encompassing things. You might be inclined to call them ambient, but they feel so damned physical. The duo’s meshing of electronic treatments with acoustic instrumentation is often flawless, the kind of alchemy that makes these guys stand out from the crowd.

But it’s our expectation of cohesion, that idea of the big, seamless whole they’ve presented so often, that makes Centralia surprising. The tracks here are, of course, unapologetically large. There’s expanse here, for sure, but there’s also borders, both wide ones around the entire album – and its big movements – and also smaller, local borders between elements. Lines are drawn, parts are separated out. And yet, despite the breaks we get here, the whole feels stronger, more together, when its parts are identified.

Eleven-minute opener “Sand” feels at first like the kind of drifting you expect from Mountains or countless other bands you’d define as ambient. It shimmers and blips, swelling and soaring, building ever-so-slowly over the course of the first seven or so minutes. But there’s a shift, a drifting away of the electronic for low, groaning strings. The organic takes over for the electronic. It’s a quiet shift, but a very clear one. It leads into the more contained, finger-picked acoustic number “Identical Ship”. Here we see that, where before Mountains combined and intertwined the acoustic and the electronic, on Centralia they pit the elements against each other, as parallel lines travelling not together but alongside each other. So while there’s some production treatment and squall around the guitar, “Identical Ship” is an acoustic number, owing more to Robbie Basho than Stars of the Lid.

And yet it still fits perfectly between “Sand” and the equally open “Circular C”, which blurs the acoustic notes, makes the finger-picked phrasings more circular, and shadows them with airy synth work. The song returns the focus, by degrees, back to the electronic side, and shows how the album can move back and forth not in uncontrolled yaws, but in a deliberate, if crooked, path.

It’s a subtle shift in the band’s sound, but a vital one. The focus on live instrumentation – see how the acoustic guitar continues in “Tilt” brilliantly and in “Liana” how distorted guitar slices through the heady bed of synthesizers – presents these songs are both deeply physical and hauntingly ethereal. This isn’t a new combo to Mountains – and sometimes, as on closer “Living Lens” they repeat the past more than perfect it – but this is their most fully realized, potent take on that vision. They have, as they always set out to do, truly connected the access road to the astral plane. Nowhere is this more clear, or writ larger, than on “Propeller”, the 20-minute centerpiece to this album. It seethes and swells, pulses and moans, it explodes in a cascading climax of gauzy sounds. But it also settles back into negative space, into distant tidal sounds. It is both stress and catharsis, expansion and contraction. It is somehow both borderless and clearly, perfectly defined.

And so it is with Centralia, an album that plays with physical space as much as it opens up the expanse we’re capable of hearing. It is an album interested in how the limitations of instruments, when combined right, can achieve the limitlessness of well-constructed sound. Few bands deal as well in acoustic or electronic compositions as Mountains does in both, simultaneously, on top of one another. So yes, there are all these layers, all these beautifully free compositions, the synths and the guitars working to somehow set themselves apart while also defining each other. There’s all that, but it’s the feeling beneath it all or on top of it all or wherever it is. The way this music feels is what gives it its true weight, its true physicality in all their fully-formed dimensions and, yes, beauty.

RATING 7 / 10