All those hand-written "Mountains" on the cover of this 2008 record, now reissued by Thrill Jockey, assure us that, no matter how many times we say its name, the band remains slippery and in a state of constant redefinition, each one as satisfying as the last.
Mountains Mountains Mountains, the 2008 release from duo Koen Haltkamp and Brendon Anderegg that was originally released on the Catsup Plate label, is a fledgling release from one of the finest working instrumental acts today. Mountains already kicked off 2013 with the excellently huge new album, Centralia, and this reissue of Mountains Mountains Mountains gives us an interesting counterpoint. It both lets us see how far the band has come and realize that they were pretty damned amazing in the first place.
The four tracks here were recorded between 2005 and 2007, and that time allows for a feeling of both progression and exploration on the album. Opener "The Whale Years" was recorded in a hotel room in Georgia during the band's first US tour. The improvised track pulses and faintly clicks, weaving treated acoustic guitars with whispers of electronic haze. It is, unsurprisingly, a beautiful expanse of sound, one that seems to both swell patiently and – deep in its hidden corners – skitter fitfully. Over its 12-minute run time, it works itself into a wash of sound, one that doesn't overwhelm but does surely envelop, albeit gently. It may be a more straightforward version of textures the band would complicate on later releases, but it by no means suffers as a result. It treads this terrain well with a confident eye for the ever-distant horizon.
The album then skips in time to the shorter acoustic number "Nest", recorded two years later. It's a more clear-cut guitar track than Mountains usually gives us, reminiscent of the work of guitar composers like James Blackwell and even, distantly, Robbie Basho. It's a contained response to the call of "The Whale Years". There are still faint waves crashing in the background, sometimes the faint din of voices, but up front the guitar cascading down notes, reminding us that the duo is not only two great composers of sound, but two great musicians and writers of structure songs. The song works well on its own, but even in disrupting the timeline of the records, it makes for a nice hinge to tie "The Whale Years" to "Millions of Time". This song, with its constantly whirring, circular groan, is the most outright electronic of these compositions. Originally releases as a tour-only CD-R – with the fourth track here, "Hive" – it ends up playing well with others, reflecting the most shimmer parts of "The Whale Years" and bringing to the forefront the atmosphere that hides so carefully in "Nest".
"Hive" is another 12-minute piece that sort of acts as a catch-all for these other songs. The first three here seem to reflect the shards that make up the mosaic of Mountains' sound. "The Whale Years" deals in the distortion and treatment of the organic, while "Nest" plays the organic straight up and "Millions of Time" pumps up the synths and electronic noise. "Hive" weaves these parts together, layering filtered guitars on top of each other until they feel almost alien, unrecognizable. They devolve and breakdown into the album's most shadowy sections, growling up a storm of windswept keyboards and sampled, desiccated instrumentation. That it rises back out of that valley and up into more transcendental sounds reminds us that Mountains rarely swells out from a fixed point. Rather, their music, even this early on, was always moving forward, travelling, its sounds as topographical as they are purely aural.
And so, Mountains Mountains Mountains ends up not a look back at something formative, but rather at a fully formed salvo from a band that, it turns out, knew what it was doing all along. This stuff is fundamental to what Mountains is. It's the stuff the latter, perhaps more complex, records were built upon. But that doesn't make it secondary to its followers, necessarily, just dynamic in a different way. What that repeated title, and all the hand-written "Mountains" on the cover assure us is that there is no assurances. That this has the same elements, but sounds like no other Mountains record. That, no matter how many times we say its name, the band remains slippery and in a state of constant redefinition, each one as satisfying as the last.