A host of bands from Dunedin, New Zealand, have influenced the global indie pop scene over the years, but all those jingles and jangles aren’t the only noteworthy noises to have emanated from the city. Dunedin also has a long history of bands taking a darker musical tack, such as the audio disfigurements of experimental trio the Dead C, and the noise-rock distortions and post-rock contortions of another celebrated three-piece, the late and lamented HDU.
HDU began dicing up sound with unorthodox time signatures and serving it all via stacks of flambéed amplifiers in the mid-’90s. The band’s 2001 full-length Fire Works, recorded by Steve Albini, is HDU’s best release, and its most internationally successful. The group called a halt in 2008, and soon after, HDU’s singer and guitarist, Tristan Dingemans, began working with drummer Chris Livingston and bassist Anaru Ngata, birthing another tumultuous trio in Mountaineater. Over the past few years the band has played a swag of incendiary live shows–and released the Mata/Sun Fired 7-inch. Coupled with the reverence with which HDU is regarded, expectations around Mountaineater’s recently released self-titled debut album are sky high.
Mountaineater exceeds those expectations. Dingemans wrests earthquaking sounds from his guitar, and shapes gargantuan songs that reverberate with deep sonic tremors and tales of struggle and the search for meaning. No surprise there.
Dingemans is, unquestionably, one of New Zealand’s guitar greats, and the titanic timbre of his distinctive six-string stylings have always made for monolithic suites. However, Mountaineater is also Dingemans’ most evocative work yet, and the album is filled with sounds that mirror the peaks and valleys of Mountaineater’s geographic environment. Mountaineater also brings a strong sense of the honing of creative ideas the band has indulged in on stage and in practice rooms, and recorded and mixed by Dale Cotton over the last two years, (with Cotton and Dingemans co-producing) the album sounds mammoth, and aptly mountainous.
Mountaineater is a towering release, and as Cotton so ably exhibited on Beastwars’ Blood Becomes Fire album earlier this year, he’s captured Mountaineater’s Herculean tones so all their hefty impact is felt, but not at the expense of subtler shifts up the fretboard, or more intricate percussive fills.
“Gutterball” opens proceedings with a crushing riff that pays homage to Albini’s trudge and trample, but as the song tears through cragged caverns, it paints a picture of Dingemans wrestling with angels and demons–both hallucinatory and real. “Lord of Sumo” follows on, with its bass-heavy propulsion plowing on through a track that leaves the reek of stoner rock in its wake, and comparisons can be made between Mountaineater and HDU on both songs.
Each is powered by a rock-solid rhythm section for a start, but with all songs (bar one) being written by Dingemans, there are other, inescapable, memories of HDU’s guitar voyages. Most clearly heard are Dingemans’ continuing investigations into balancing density and space with fluctuating tempos and layers of texture. And the familiar sense that things could veer off anywhere is all over the gigantic post-punk epic “Spiderbaby” — which spills over with dirty riffs and ear-splitting chaos.
Mountaineater also forgoes easy pigeonholing. Like HDU, the band combines a raft of elements from brawny, coarse and more venturesome rock into a cacophonous caldron, but the resulting mix also marks the most obvious point of difference between HDU and Mountaineater.
Mountaineater dives in with denser, overdriven riffs to produce scorching rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s all there on “Jerusalem” — with the song’s sonic stockpile detonating in a cathartic release reminiscent of the pressure-gauge dynamiting the band produces live on stage. However, it’s not all heads-down noise. Mountaineater brings a sense of wide open exploration on the cinematic tour of psychedelic landscapes found on “Ch’an Ra”. “Exegesis VII” tumbles over acid-rock rapids–with icy feedback pooling in deep reflective eddies. And both songs show the mass within to be just as important as the contemplative weight that surrounds them.
Mountaineater continues the thundering adventures that Dingemans began with HDU, but with Livingston and Ngata alongside, the trio isn’t repeating tales already told. Mountaineater bludgeons with both finesse and ferocity, dispensing abundant mayhem while digging deep into the maelstrom, and exploring jagged sonic summits lit by kaleidoscopic color on more open-ended sojourns.
Whatever the elevation, Mountaineater makes for a majestic view: 360 degrees of driving and wholly powerful rock ‘n’ roll. A stunning debut, all round.