After sticking to laptop-treated acoustic sources for their first five years together, organic soundscapers Mountains, the duo of Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp, have changed up their method on cleverly titled new album Air Museum. Leaving the software behind, they now stretch and tweak their sources with analog equipment like pedals and modular synthesizers. Trading in track pads for banks of knobs opens their music up to quite a few new possibilities: more shimmering movement, increased density, and machinelike rhythms. On Air Museum, you’ll hear Mountains trying out all of these possibilities, and the album, though still droney, feels like a departure more than a refinement.
Coming into this album, the defining characteristic of Mountains was their ability to make soundscapes that played like landscapes, using subtlety and near stillness to create space which just beckoned to be filled up with some imaginary place by the listener. Opening track “January 17” begins with a familiar, harmonium-esque drone which is soon joined by a quickly vibrating Ms. PacMan oscillation. You can leave the room, come back a few minutes later, and the only perceptible change in the song is that it sounds louder. It’s followed by “Thousand Square”, which sports a two-note Neu!-esque bleep-bloop rhythm, some background throb, and not a whole lot else for five minutes. Then “Newsprint” comes along with slowly building sheets of static countered with some friction-tones, but it rouses about as much interest as the monolithic yawns of Fennesz’s recent offering Black Sea.
Thankfully, at the midpoint of the album, it seems like they finally get the hang of their new knobs, as “Sequel” features audible instrument picking as well as sonic layering which creates an interesting tension, and when they finally let the krauty and loud elements fall away there’s some emotionality to their twiddling. “Blue Lanterns on East Oxford” sees them denying the linear, forward thrust of their newfound electronics, staying in one place and really milking it for its different possibilities, first with a circular oscillation set against some blubbery bass, then with a pseudo-music-box melody. The three or four parts all seem to start at different rhythms and then gain or lose speed at different rates, and it makes for the first invigorating listen on the album. “Backwords Crossover” then sees them once again doing good things with a busy arrangement, pushing more melody and bass out there to give some stereo depth, and then after a saggy middle section, bringing back some weirdness with some unhinged oscillations and a wobbly bellows-ish melody that’s reminiscent of Black Dice’s Beaches and Canyons. “Live at the Triple Door” finishes everything off with a lengthy but calming five-minute static and overtones drone, the type of thing that’s been done a million times but which is still an effective endcap. Surprisingly, after the drone dies down, they actually bring their unburnished acoustic guitars out for the first time on the album, as if to suggest the previous forty minutes of music is just an alternate branch in the universe, and that the music also exists elsewhere in fully acoustic, tabbed or notated form. If that’s so, I wish I was living in that universe instead.
In their previous mode, Mountains were great at attenuating and stretching sounds until they presented you with a granularity at the level of the inner workings of a note or chord, sort of like a surveyor slowly and steadily mapping a landform. It seems like they’re getting away from that naturalism, taking some broader views, and getting into the action of things through their pulsing electronics. While Mountains have increased their sonic palette, they have lost much of their unique identity. It’s not that Air Museum sounds bad; it’s very harmonious drone music with krautrock touches, and toward the end the new means seem to start working for them on their terms. But that’s just it. Mountains had found a way to work in an area which was unexplored and undefined, successfully fashioning their own esthetic. This new direction is taking Mountains away from that specialness and closer to the average.