Mountains: Choral

The ambient-drone duo make its first classic, in the vein of Eluvium and Stars of the Lid.



Label: Thrill Jockey
UK Release Date: 2009-02-17
US Release Date: 2009-02-17

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?


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.