Mercury Rev – Snowflake Midnight

Mercury Rev
Snowflake Midnight

When the plaudits were given to Mercury Rev for 1998’s Deserter’s Songs, some were clearly unjustified – including those hyperbolically handed-out by a younger version of this writer. It was asserted erroneously that the album was a new dazzling dawn for the band, with the preceding trio of 1991’s Yerself Is Steam, 1993’s Boces and 1995’s See You On The Other Side acting as merely curious ‘warming-up’ exercises. But in hindsight-sharpened reality, Deserter’s Songs began to feel like the beginning of the end, with Mercury Rev’s maverick psychedelia watering-down into drippy tweeness. Aside from the legions of copycat acts it inspired, Deserter’s Songs lead to the overblown but underfed All Is Dream LP in 2001 and the painfully-etiolated Secret Migration in 2005; wherein primary vocalist Jonathan Donahue in particular reached new-lows with his pseudo-pastoral wordplay and tiresome Neil Young vocal affectations. It seemed then, that 2006’s Stillness Breathes: 1991-2006 compilation could have been a prudent place to call it quits. However, 2008 sees the release of two simultaneously-released albums; one being a free download-only instrumental collection entitled Strange Attractor and the other being the flaccidly-anointed ‘official’ song-based set, Snowflake Midnight. Whilst followers can take a chance on Strange Attractor (unavailable for review) without financial penalties, can Snowflake Midnight justify any expense?

The signs aren’t good from just a cursory glance at the insipid song titles; such as “Snowflake In A Hot World,” “People Are So Unpredictable (There’s No Bliss Like Home),” “Runaway Raindrop” and – perhaps worst of all – “A Squirrel And I (Holding On… And Then Letting Go).” Yet giving Snowflake Midnight some ‘professional’ benefit of the doubt for review purposes leads to the discovery that it isn’t quite as bad as one might expect. It’s not an especially great Mercury Rev release – and lyrically it tokes on some truly abysmal sub-hippie couplets – but it’s not quite following the same arc of deterioration as its three predecessors.

It appears that at least the need for musical change has been recognised within the Rev ranks (Donahue together with Sean ‘Grasshopper’ Mackowiak, Jeff Mercel and producer Dave Fridmann). This doesn’t unfortunately mean a return to the soaring symphonic noise of the outfit’s classic early triumvirate. Instead it seems, that the group sought to re-explore the electronic avenues lit-up by Donahue’s creditable collaborations with The Chemical Brothers and via the bouncy space-pop of “Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp” (tucked-into the closing corner of Deserter’s Songs). Hence, artilleries of busy drum machines, squelching synths, whooshing drones, samples, loops and vocal effects are fired into action, instead of guitars and syrupy strings.

Whilst it’s still hard to be moved by the core role of Donahue, the new and more imaginative sonic scenery does pull a few borderline-delights out of the bag. The pulsing “Senses On Fire” – with its disorientating multi-tracked ensemble vocals and stomping insistent groove – is certainly a good place to start. Elsewhere, the wordless “October Sunshine” delivers a glacial ghostliness worthy of Dead Can Dance or Labradford; “Dream Of A Young Girl As A Flower” clings tightly to a powerfully marauding rhythm track; the Tortoise-like percussion workouts on “Faraway From Cars” nearly offset the terrible prose; and the ambient-techno threads of “Butterfly’s Wing” pull off a similarly mean feat.

It will take a stiff stomach to digest it all, with some tracks – like “A Squirrel And I…” – dissolving into a mess of studio and Donahue-related gloop. But overall Snowflake Midnight isn’t quite the disaster that the disillusioned might have expected. Now if only Mercury Rev had the guts to bring back underrated wild-cat co-vocalist David Baker back into the fold, then we might again hear some near-magical Boces-style carnage. We can but dream…