Time passes and we stop listening to some of those artists who had previously meant a great deal to us. Sometimes the break is final, though we may see their new records advertized in magazines or on the Internet, hear a song or two at a party, in a bar, at a coffee shop or in a record store. And sometimes, of course, the break is not final, though how our paths cross again is probably more a product of chance than anything else.
My return to the music of Phil Elverum, whose work as The Microphones, especially The Glow Pt. 2, had so delighted a younger version of me, hinges upon a chance posting of a Mount Eerie song by a friend on Facebook: absolutely mundane and curiously fortunate, then. The song was “Between Two Mysteries,” a piece that incorporates, stunningly, the dread melody that begins “Laura Palmer’s Theme.” And while I didn’t then find myself eager to get immediately lost in Elverum’s output, without hearing that song I doubt I would have ended up latching on to the two records he has delivered this year, Clear Moon and Ocean Roar, both of which continue to incorporate the influence of Angelo Badalamenti, alongside explorations of the textural guitar sound, abrasive but beautiful, of black metal, as originally visited on 2009’s Wind’s Poem.
While both Clear Moon and Ocean Roar are notable for the atmospheric spaces they develop, indeed for the way they seem to patiently explore the powers realized by the coming together of the particular sounds at play, the latter is notably darker in tone. Inspired by a nighttime journey through old growth forests to a Pacific Northwest coastline submerged in the murk of winter, Ocean Roar has its share of lyrical and warm moments, above all the gentle “Ocean Roar,” which floats meters from the ground in a lovely mist of shoegaze guitar and beatific vocals (courtesy of Allyson Foster, who also sang on Clear Moon highlight, “The Place I Live”). “I Walked Home Beholding” is equally encased in haze, though its crisp finger snaps make the dense wash of the synthesizer chords more akin to the lighter moments of Julee Cruise, maybe “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart,” though Elverum’s tune is more earnest than cute.
But even with sustained moments of grace such as these, noise predominates. “Waves” and a cover of Popol Vuh’s “Engel der Luft” are the most bellicose pieces, the first evoking murderously giant walls of water, relenting only momentarily for a brief vocal passage halfway through before churning away, beautiful blue wreckage. “Engel der Luft” picks up there, trading in the drowsy splendor of the Kosmische original for squalling feedback that seems to be reaching to capture one of nature’s more brutal gestures. The finale, “Instrumental,” is heavy as well, but carried forward by a mid-tempo beat it ends up sounding something like Wooden Shjips spiraling out of control, loose, motorik structuring descending into doomy guitar mayhem. It serves as a bookend to the album’s opener, “Pale Lights,” which careens through a duskier expanse, battered by charges of ragged guitar noise. The effect when this deluge of sound gets temporarily buried low in the mix, almost beneath the mix, and Elverum describes “pale lights from other islands,” in a fractured voice reminiscent of Will Oldham, is eerily brilliant, the restrained violence making an opening for the kind of serenity that one returns to time and again, mystified. When the guitars rise again they’re tangled up with a droning organ, notes like foghorns or the flashing of lighthouses behind deep banks of fog, their pattern obscured, dwindling.
Taken as the second act of a project beginning with Clear Moon, Ocean Roar makes clear the fact that Phil Elverum got wondrously lost in the studio, lost in the exploration of a particularly potent and hypnotic sound world. The dark vibes by way of Badalamenti and haptic amplification make the frailty of the human voices that enter and disappear all the more moving, as they deliver images that cycle back through the textures and timbres of the music, memories written upon like palimpsests by the moody sensations and disturbing, romantic visions of a music that seems to want the shadowy recesses, good and bad, of the human soul as much as it does the obscure but direct, frightful symmetry of climate, mountains, forest, and ocean.
Nadja – Radiance of Shadows
Bonnie “Prince” Billy – I See a Darkness
Angelo Badalamenti – Twin Peaks OST
Stream: Mount Eerie – “Ocean Roar”