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MP3 Discussion Group: ‘Choral’ & ‘Etching’ by Mountains

This week, the Disquiet.com MP3 Discussion Group returns to collectively given a listen to two albums released this year by the duo Mountains: Choral (cover at left — on the Thrill Jockey label) and Etching (cover below — and which Mountains self-released). Mountains is Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp, and they traffic in a rich and unique realm of drone-music, in which rural guitar atmospheres and acoustic elements mingle amid lush, beautiful harmonic fields. A previous Mountains album, Sewn, was one of the top-10 albums of the year on Disquiet.com in 2006 (disquiet.com). More on Mountains, including streams of several pieces of their music, at myspace.com/apestaartjemountains.

Participating in this week’s MP3 Discussion Group are: Julian Lewis: “I write much of Lend Me Your Ears, a UK/Spain-based MP3 blog that appreciates less obvious music.” Alan Lockett: “I write music reviews and commentary on ambient/drone, the more adventurous end of techno/house, post-dub, and IDM. Based in Bristol, epicentre of the Dub-zone in the Wild West of England, I can mainly be read on igloomag.com and furthernoise.org.” Joshua Maremont: “I record as Thermal and pursue my musical and other obsessions in San Francisco.” The conversation will play out in this post’s comments section. This is by no means a closed discussion, so do feel free to join in.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Tag: / Comments: 17 ]

17 Comments

  1. [ Posted November 2, 2009, at 2:15 pm ]

    A kind of formless post-stoner rock combining a limited sound palette, musical development & emotional range with a near-limitless protractedness…

    I’m an unashamed Mountains lover. But even — or especially — with an appetite for their shimmering, accumulating sound that takes in any release I can find (including both solo guises), it’s worth trying to imagine why people might not love their music.

    Only for a moment, though, as those people are wrong! For me, Mountains’ limits & limitlessness are at the core of their uniqueness. Listening back across their albums before Choral & Etching, they seem always to have had this subtly self-confident willingness to work & rework their narrow but, in its sly, slow way, very intense furrow — gentle, accepting, somewhat yearning (but muted).

    You could say that the newer records, the relatively vigorous Etching especially, are in more obviously Mountainous terrain: yomping up to single note-driven swollen, riffy peaks, then ebbing down to regroup below. But I’ve never found that their name fits them at all well — this is music of the foothills or meadows, one that is precisely not about soaring peaks but rather long (not arduous) journeys or undertakings.

    There’s also a timelessness at work, clearly – both indifference to conventional notions of structure, of starting & ending, & in the sense of a sound out of time: not especially contemporary nor actively backwards-looking either (though fans of Another Green World-era art-rock might feel an unexpected spark of recognition at some of the textures making up Etching’s lovely murk).

    I’ll come back to Choral, but Etching has a definite performance feel (though that might be down to Thrill Jockey sharing the circumstances of its making, I concede). I seem to hear more overt kinetic energy than before, though the languid, reflective tempo has hardly altered.

    It’s a dense, rich sound of several boxes of tricks being emptied out & put to play – more strummed than I remember from initial listens, but also clattering, buzzing & with a darker, riffier tone towards the end.

    And although there’s evidently not a vast narrative arc from something like 2005’s lovely Blown Glass Typewriter or the previous year’s more glitch-droney Tonic performance to now, there’s been more than enough enriching of the sound along the way to make want to hear where it goes next…

  2. [ Posted November 2, 2009, at 2:18 pm ]

    First thing that occurs to me in re: Mountains is – somewhat trivially but justifiable descriptively – that it’s actually not the best of names for the duo. I’d suggest Rivers, or Brooks, or maybe Cascades (too New Age-y?). It’s just that flowing water strikes me as the obvious metaphor for their sound. Y’know how the reviews go: “Etching” is a rippling, babbling stream of blah blah, ebbs and flows blah blah, with a calm surface occasional currents and eddies blah blah swimming with micro-detail etc etc…

    OK, so, Mountains they are, despite the fact they only ever get a bit hilly ;-)

    Anyway, I’m going to focus first on “Etching” as it’s new, and, yes, it ebbs and flows like a warm stream etc for its 38-minute duration, varying between more ‘natural’/organic sections and more DSP-inflected passages. Apparently, the whole recording is in real time with no overdubs, which I found quite surprising at first. But on further reflection I could hear it as like a kind of semi-structured improv with post-production tweaks allowing for it to come across as more composed. There’s a kind of steel thread of acoustic guitar that runs right through it, perceptible amid the developing maneuvred hum and noodle and fizz, that maybe points to its genesis as a kind of studio jam.

    In contrast with Choral, it harks back more to the band’s s/t Apestaartje debut in its long-format orientation – though I found the sound design here more nuanced both in architecture and progression than it was in 2006 (?). It occurred to me that part of the appeal of the longitudinal enhancement is that it endows it with greater hypnagogic/trance (n.b. not Trance!) potential, while allowing for various tone and mood shifts to be explored in-process.

    These Mountains seem to swim around (see!) somewhere in between Kosmische, electro-acoustic, ambient/deep listening, and post-digital microsound/glitch. I wouldn’t be being Me if I didn’t indulge in an orgy of references, so I’ll offer ’70s – Cluster, Popol Vuh – and ’00s – Growing and White Rainbow – models. Then, with the more obvious Fennesz/Hecker (in re: the more fizzy bits) as asides, I’ll follow up with that whole (nouvelle) vague wave of psych-drone/Ecstatic Peace/Nu-school New Age types like Emeralds, James Ferraro, et al. But I’d want to qualify that last bit by saying that a more staid sort of electro-acoustic and Ambient ethos kind of keeps it more well-mannered and almost ‘chamber’.

    Oh, and, yeah, I enjoyed it very much. I confess I haven’t had time to revisit “Choral” since it came out, but I will as the discussion develops.

  3. [ Posted November 2, 2009, at 2:30 pm ]

    We’ve talked about length recently in one of our other discussions – generally and broadly, what it means as part of an overall composition, the extent to which it should be taken into consideration, how it is to be considered. This pairing of releases by a single act provides an opportunity to compare and contrast. We have Choral, with its six tracks topping of at about 13 minutes, and Etching which is a single track of more than twice that length (it’s almost 40 minutes in total). There are many other differences between the records, but perhaps because of those recent discussions about length, the subject was always on my mind when re-listening to these in advance of this session.

    What has always appealed to me about Mountains’s music, and it’s the case with both these records, matters of sustained composition notwithstanding, is the detail in their drones – the level to which the lovely, meditative music that they release is, in fact, shot through with elements that are closer by definition to irritants than to relaxants.

    To my ear, that’s a double tension – first, there is the very presence of those elements that might seem like shimmers but are closer to rattles, and then there’s the extent to which they threaten to undermine the overarching (i.e., calm) structure that Mountains are tying to devise.

    To be clear, I take this to be a very conscious decision on the part of the two guys in Mountains. The tension is not one of lack of internal coherence, but instead of a sublimated internal combustion.

    Really looking forward to this talk. We often in the past have come to focus on second and third albums when discussing our primary subject, and it’ll be interesting how having dual subjects will shape the conversation.

  4. [ Posted November 3, 2009, at 12:21 pm ]

    I know what you mean about that tension, Marc; kind of holding in check the effect of processing on the ‘natural’ signal of the source instrument. There’s a ‘tipping point,’ as it were, where DSP is concerned, when signal decay is tweaked up so that it starts to eat away at the body of a tone, and it crosses over into what’s more characterisable as noise, as the pitch is eroded. It’s what happens on some more challenging passages of, say, Fennesz and Tim Hecker, where digital depredations are given their head, rather than just playing at the edges. And likewise where some of the psych-drone lot I alluded to stretch out like jumped-up kids wigging out in a rehearsal room, as I said, there remains a quasi-‘chamber’ air about the Mountains chaps, even in their less composed passages. It’s kind of like I alaays felt with Raster Noton (early period, rather than more recent) doing their cut-paste cyber-funk – you could almost feel the labcoats and the chins being stroked along with the click shtick. Julian talks about the music’s ‘riffy peaks’, but there’s a kind of presiding spirit of quiescence at work here that pulls against the will-to-riff-out – that strives to keep the infinite body on a leash. Uh… yeah… guess I let myself froth at the mouth verbally there a bit… but, mmm, in my defence, I hit a bit of a riffy peak of my own there, you might say

  5. [ Posted November 3, 2009, at 12:41 pm ]

    I must admit to being a latecomer to these Mountains, having heard only Fourcolor from the Apestaartje label and Koen Holtkamp only by himself on the Type label. I can only speculate about the loveliness I have missed on this duo’s earlier releases, but about their Choral I can recall first hearing it several months ago and immediately considering it as one of the best albums of the year, only to leave it unplayed again until this time of writing. It came through the front door of my flat with the 2009 installment of Kompakt’s Pop Ambient compilation series, and at the time I found that the two albums made for an odd convergence: as Kompakt’s high-gloss digital serenity was finding more acoustic expression, Mountains appeared to be heading back on the other side of the path, lending their improvised drones in the construction of those endlessly unspooling sheets of blissful distance gazing familiar from the Ilars and Guentners of pop ambience past. Now, months later, as I have been listening to reissues of Cluster and of King Crimson, I hear in Choral an entirely different set of references: to the opening grandeur of Cluster & Eno, to the heightened states of Popul Vuh’s Aguirre soundtrack, to the meditative wanderings of Fripp & Eno’s No Pussyfooting (with even more of this last light source pouring through the cracks of Etching). Which is first to point out the Protean aspect of Choral, in its tendency to sound like the records played before or after itself, revealing itself in adjacent contrast. For although, like Alan, I find the references here to be in the main German and Seventies, this music lacks the compositional rigor of Moebius and Roedelius or the spiritual intensity of a Fricke or a Fripp, reaching the thin air at the peak instead by the overlaying of simple strums and muffled clatter one might associate with the Digitalis, Fonal, Students Of Decay, or Root Strata schools of folk drone (or going back a bit further to the Storey-Spybey era of Zoviet-France in the 1980s). It is interesting, too, to see Emeralds pop up in our discussion, for just as Emeralds have taken the Midwestern noise road toward the same destination as Kluster reached via that unrepeatable blend of academic training and art-music improvisation found in Germany four decades ago, I feel that Mountains have attained the entranced levitational realms of the German proto-New Age via inspired clamor and detailed layering rather than across that treacherous pass once traversed only with due payment to Karlheinz and Owsley.

  6. [ Posted November 3, 2009, at 4:54 pm ]

    You say Popol, I say Eno – let’s call the whole thing off! No, but this discussion is already throwing up a welter of references to unfamiliar Mountains cousins that I’m thirsting to hear: Growing, White Rainbow, James Ferraro & Students Of Decay will all be new to these ears, for example, while the Emeralds penny only dropped very recently (& gladly)…

    Marc’s “sublimated internal combustion” of shimmers-that-are-really-rattles seems right on the money: their “irritants” the grit that makes the quiescent pearl. I’ll always be listening for them from now on!

    As for Joshua’s “simple strums”, I mentioned there being more than I remembered from early listens of ‘Etching’. What I didn’t mention is how relatively dispensable a part of the Mountainscape they can sometimes seem.

    Perhaps it’s just my prejudice. But granted the power to ban Mountains from their acoustic guitar (guitars?), I might be tempted – to force them to work even more with the blobbier, more viscous part of their sound, or even to dig out the bells of ‘Melodica’ another time.

    But then I’m back at the limbering start of ‘Etching’, where they seem integral & coherent (if not ear-grabbing). Still, some passages on ‘Choral’ – the start of ‘Telescope’, for example – I’d consider purging from the record!

  7. [ Posted November 3, 2009, at 6:07 pm ]

    Actually, I am not troubled by those simple strums – it was not meant as a criticism – but listening to something like this beside Cluster & Eno – the opening tracks of each are a near match – I notice them on headphones as a key and telling difference: whereas Cluster seems organized at the molecular level in the tight and almost Reichian playing of an ensemble (and the scientific precision of Conny Plank’s recording), Mountains’ music falls together from a distance, even if its pieces may seem slightly in disarray when viewed at close range. To me this effect adds to the naturalistic charm of these recordings, as well as placing them firmly within a peculiarly woolly – for lack of a better word – 21st Century vein. Perhaps the group is well named after all: at a distance this sound is majestic, while under the microscope all manner of little and perhaps even troubling organisms are going about their business, and it is somehow that very business that leaves the mountaintop looking this way to us. I must say, I can gaze at it all day.

  8. [ Posted November 3, 2009, at 8:59 pm ]

    I’m going to comment on the “strumming” in Mountains’s music — which is to say, the unambiguous presentation of guitar played in a rural-ish mode.

    I’m in favor of it. It distinguishes their drones from strum-less ones, the latter of which are far more common in electronic music. It finds a common ground between “pop” Brian Eno and “ambient” Eno. It finds a common ground between Eno and John Fahey. It lends a conceptual structure, not so much on “Add Infinity” (off ‘Choral’), in which the initial strumming is buried in the mix, but certainly on “Map Table,” in which naked guitar strumming suggests the beginning of a song (yeah, memories of practicing finger-picking with “Dust in the Wind” did come to mind) when in fact what happens is that a whole range of effects is slowly added to augment the playing, not to affect the sound so much as to complement it.

    In the end, I definitely prefer the murkier approach — say, on “Sheets Two,” how a simple echo serves to put the guitar in a hall of mirrors, and how the bass string is left to rumble on its lonesome. But I appreciate how Mountains experiments with more traditional playing (again, “Map Table” is a primary example).

    It’s kind of intriguing to me how things get turned around as a matter of cultural context, how what’s experimental or unusual about Mountains’s music is precisely how it ventures into non-abstract territory.

  9. [ Posted November 3, 2009, at 10:10 pm ]

    Also, about Etching — my understanding is that Mountains released it initially as a CD-R, and that then Thrill Jockey picked it up for release on vinyl. I haven’t seen or heard the vinyl — anyone know how the vinyl differs? Is it the one piece split in two? Is the B-side something different?

  10. [ Posted November 4, 2009, at 1:26 am ]

    Yes, Marc, the piece is apparently split into two, and you could probably identify where, as boomkat says:

    “The first side’s material slowly and steadily oozes into a fluid, continuous stream of processed post-folk drones, […] Flipping over, the second side seems to commence with a perpetual orchestra tune-up session, announcing itself with rich sustained tones that eventually find accompaniment from bright synthesizer fluctuations,…” http://www.boomkat.com/item.cfm?id=231869

    Elsewhere I read the following in re: the format history of “Etching”: “…as Etching was recorded prior to Mountains heading out on tour in support of Choral, the record was packaged up as a CD-R and sold to concertgoers with special hand-stamped sleeves. In other words, getting your hands on an actual CD-R of this is going to be tough stuff unless you’ve been to the show and picked one up already or if you know how to rock the eBay.

    Of course, if you have one of those old-fashioned record players, you may be in luck. Etching is set for a vinyl release on October 20, 2009. For the vinyl release, Mountains re-sequenced the original CD-R recordings and, naturally, packaged the records with a hand-stamped LP jacket and a coupon for the MP3 download of the piece.” http://blogcritics.org/music/article/music-review-mountains-etching/

  11. [ Posted November 4, 2009, at 9:36 pm ]

    Alan’s post concerning the slightly tortured release history of Etching, puts me in mind of the often bothersome introduction of scarcity into the distribution of obscure music. There is something admittedly delicious about holding in one’s hand something rare – and I have to reveal that I was most saddened by the sold out situation at Broadcast’s show here in SF last night most of all due to my inability to grab the group’s latest tour-only CD, the last two having been so lovely – yet at times, and I should be clear that I am not suggesting that the release of Etching is one of these, I wonder why scarcity is even a factor at this point in the age of digital music, except as a way to enhance the value of music-bearing artifacts. It is, certainly, an effective marketing technique: if I see something unheard on the dreaded merch table of a show, I will probably read and listen up about it on line before purchasing it, yet if it is tour-only I will almost certainly give its immediate purchase more serious consideration. In these days of downloadable FLAC files, is there any reason for the auctioneers and the blog-rippers to have all the fun, with punishment to the fans who are late to the games.

    But returning to the records at hand, as I listen further to Choral and particularly to Telescope (and Julian, I cannot part with this track), I am recalling another lovely bit of Sky Records longing from the last decade by Sand, entitled The Dynamic Curve, this being an interesting example of a shoegazing studio prankster getting his Sowiesoso on, but adding almost anthemic guitar chords and percussion to put the record unquestionably in the 1990s. And Mountains too are very much of their time, even if at this time we may most of all be interested in summing others. I do wonder whether anyone in thirty years will be summing these.

  12. [ Posted November 5, 2009, at 8:04 am ]

    Alan, thanks for that clarification. I just have the single MP3 file version.

    Joshua, I hear you — part of me wonders if you answered the question yourself. A little cynically, I can see the tour-only releases as opportunities for bands to sell the unheard to fans before its perceived value has been mediated by commentary. A little less cynically, I can see the tour-only releases as opportunities to reward fans with something ceremonial, and special for it. (I know I didn’t think twice before purchasing the Method of Defiance album at the band’s recent show in San Francisco — it wasn’t even “tour only” — just “minor hassle to find otherwise.”) The answer may as well be in the packaging. In the age of easily copied’n’pasted digital audio, it is precisely the handcrafted packaging that makes it special.

  13. [ Posted November 5, 2009, at 5:45 pm ]

    Joshua, you set a tough yardstick! I’d like to think that people will still listen to Mountains in 30 years. They should: their music is of its time, of course, but not aggressively so.

    But who knows if music as we experience it today – largely separate from images & other media – will still be available & of interest then?

    In any case, with all this krautrock comparison in the discussion, it’s interesting to put Mountains up against Emeralds (the closest peer?). In this light the duo’s bristly, blurred sound seems more individual & less rooted in a single influence than the excellent Emeralds of What Happened & – another one! – the European tour CD…

    In this light, consider the new Cluster album (Qua) too – their first studio recording in 14 years. The lovable old krautlords are now trafficking in notably short little pieces – http://earslend.blogspot.com/2009/11/martian-shoe-factory.html – in contrast to Mountains’ languid unravelling.

  14. [ Posted November 5, 2009, at 6:43 pm ]

    Julian, my favorite bit of that post was that Cluster are now Moe’n’Ach; I could see a summer buddy movie – one does the bleeps and glurps, the other does the sweeps and tunes – or at least an action comic book coming out of this. With a few more releases on the order of Choral and Etching, perhaps Bren’n’Koen will have their own line of action figures. I do agree that Emeralds have a clearer lineage – Kluster/Cluster via quiet Japanese post-noise (Of Dogstarman, anyone?) – than do Mountains, but then again I have just conjured up a whole wing of a record store in trying to pin them down. And really this is even more true of Mountains: the more I reach for references, the more references I need. I suppose that was what I meant by this group’s self-revelation in contrast: the more I listen to it beside the groups to which it bears resemblance, the less it resembles them.

  15. [ Posted November 6, 2009, at 3:26 am ]

    Joshua, “the more I listen to it beside the groups to which it bears resemblance, the less it resembles them” is spot on! That uniqueness, or at least individuality, gives reason to hope that Mountains will still hold some interest over time – even if the action figures don’t work out…

    Thanks too for the Of Dogstarman tip: yet another goodie for my extensive shopping list out of this discussion (as you say, “a whole wing of a record store”).

  16. [ Posted November 6, 2009, at 8:41 am ]

    Of Dogstarman is a newie on me too, Joshua (some weird obscure semi-dyslexic reference to an old Suede album there? What’s up with that?!) – though mot sure if I truly need “Kluster/Cluster via quiet Japanese post-noise” in my life when I need to make room for so much more that’s demanding my attention. I can truly say I’ve never experienced a time as bad/good as the present for feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Stuff-Out-There that’s accessible and somehow requiring me to hear it. [aside: There’s whole other debate to be had here which I won’t get started on] Oh, and, Julian, lemme know if you need any help with your ‘shopping list'; if it includes Growing and White Rainbow, for example, and some representatives of Students of Decay (=Alex Cobb aka Taiga Remains label), and you don’t necessarily want to have-and-to-hold, I can maybe uh… lend you something for your ears ;-) Thanks for the musico-cultural exchange, chaps; pleasure as usual. See you in the next MP3 communal chinwag.

  17. [ Posted November 6, 2009, at 1:18 pm ]

    Of Dogstarman was not, actually, an unintentionally inspired post-mainline exercise in the waning days of the first Suede lineup (although I can only imagine the sound of such a thing), but a collaboration between Kosakai Fumio and Takahashi Ikuro, both veterans of the Japanese noise and psychedelic scenes, here taking a seventy-minute voyage into deep space with an engine room full of analog oscillators. It was released at a time in the late 1990s at which many of the leading noisemakers were taking a turn at ambience – the four-way split CD by Aube, Katsumi Sugahara, Fumio Kosakai, and Monde Bruits on Japan Overseas seeming to kick off this trend – with results sprawling toward, yes, the deeply droning side of the kosmische found on the early Cluster and Klaus Schulze records. Following this was a long series of ambient records by Aube and, most amusingly, the cod-kraut Alchemy Records cosmic series, including Aube’s tribute to Schulze’s Timewind. But of all of these Of Dogstarman keeps returning to the player and offers itself up as a fine example of a record very much indebted to its influences and yet very much of its own moment, memorable and playable over a decade after its release for both of these reasons. I find it fascinating that Emeralds and others (Oneohtrix Point Never comes to mind) are now, a decade later, taking the same route from noise to space with quite similar results, and I imagine that a decade from now we will hear these as records only possible from within the Midwestern noise scene of the present, and very far indeed from, for example, the synth records by blackmetallers like Neptune Towers or Paysage D’Hiver, despite the overlapping record collections of the musicians.

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