The ambient-drone duo make its first classic, in the vein of Eluvium and Stars of the Lid.
The kind of ambient-drone music Mountains make suffers from the same kind of public-relations problem all post-minimalist art does: the old “my kid could do that” philistinism that equates artistic value with apparent aural/visual complexity. Mountains’ music has always had a surface simplicity, a cleanness of sound and form that made Mountains and Sewn so satisfying. Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp have always specialized in blending Stars of the Lid-style grandeur with more analog sounds, everything from the ever-present acoustic guitar to field recordings of water and birds, but those not moved by the graceful sweep of Mountains’ music might be tempted to label it too basic in composition -- why, it’s just a bunch of drones layered over top one another, occasionally with an acoustic guitar plucking away!
Except it isn’t. The wonderfully rich warmth of Mountains’ music is sourced partly in the fact many of the drones here are actually reworked acoustic guitar, partly from the way they draw on everything from accordion to harmonium, cello, harmonica, organ, voice, “books”, “metal bowls,” field recordings of thunderstorms and various electronics to craft their sounds, and partly from the duo’s surprising and subtle compositional slyness. If you don’t listen to a lot of this stuff, then it might make sense to hear Choral and compare it to something like Eno and Fripp’s No Pussyfooting (which “Telescope” does admittedly look to), but that’s about as justified as a review comparing some modern metal to Black Sabbath. Subtleties do exist in the genre, and those who have been immersed in it point to Mountains as something special. From the eternally peaking waves of the opening title track on, Choral makes a strong case even to neophytes that this kind of music can be just as immediately nourishing as anything using verse/chorus/verse form. “Choral” pulls off the difficult trick of constantly moving forward without ever seeming to, and all of Choral seems to travel without moving, introducing new elements, sounds and melodies carefully enough you never notice them until it swells to occupy center stage.
Like Eluvium’s great Talk Amongst the Trees, Choral succeeds because of this sense of progression and because Mountains offer up a surprisingly rich emotional palette throughout the album. Just as “New Animals From the Air” tugged at the heart, thanks to the interplay between the shoots of melody working its way through and around the slabs of fuzzy drone, Choral never settles into just playing some pretty sounds. Even the pastoral “Map Table” constantly pits various burbles and fillips against the pretty guitar figure that wends its way through the sound. The result suggests something both more affecting and with more of a story (for lack of a better term) than most ambient drone.
And so the reason Mountains qualifies as post-minimalist instead of minimalist is they don’t strive to avoid evocation. Like all good post-minimalists, the duo use the forms and methods of minimalism but allow themselves to suggest something above and beyond the bare fact of the artwork itself -- the slow, struggling rise of “Melodica”, the shivering highs of “Choral”, the rough/smooth contrasts of “Add Infinity” and even the reflective calm of the brief closer “Sheets Two”. Mountains never seem clinical or academic, never seem to be exploring a sound just for exploration’s sake and always aim its folk-tinged, melody-flecked drones as much at the heart as anywhere else. After two great albums, Choral sees the duo consolidating all the gains made into its first real classic, an album that ought to delight hardened-ambient fanatics and neophytes alike. The proper response to “anyone could do that” contains a dual one: Maybe anyone could, but no one is; and even if they could, could they do it so beautifully?