Ben Spees, guitarist and keyboard player and vocalist with eclectic Portland, Oregon band The Mercury Tree describes Countenance as being “stylistically all over the map” and he is right. Being “all over the map” might often be a phrase used as criticism, but here it is praise for a band that over the course of three albums have reached a point where their confidence shines through, imbuing all the twists and turns of their current waxing with the band’s collective personality, thereby acting as a unifying force bringing together all the disparate flights of fancy their muse has gifted to them.
Diverse, to the point of using two different bass players on alternating tracks, Countenance runs the gamut of modern eclectic prog styles. There is an underlying current of math-prog stylings, as titles like Mazz Jathy indicate, and the end result sees the different strands of musical influence effortlessly arriving together as a considered and cohesive whole.
The fast and furious mini-epic Otoliths does all it can to make one exhausted just listening. Drummer Connor Reilly must be one fit guy, as he never rests throughout its eleven minute charge through the edges of a land once inhabited by The Mars Volta, and all other eclectic modern prog. Metallic without ever falling into prog-metal cliché, this album will push all the right buttons of both prog metal fans and those of us who shy away from that particular over-populated bywater. Mazz Jathy goes for percussion led Gentle Giantisms, with some wonderful marimba playing (it could well be a programmed keyboard, but I like to think it’s the actual instrument).
False Meaning will resonate with fans of The Fierce And The Dead, and it is not the only time you can hear a common distillation of influences between those two far-flung bands. Even the fact that the furiously paced Artifracture contains growling, my personal prog metal anathema, does not put me off. Used briefly and in context in a tune that is closer to speed-grunge than metal it works just fine. Something missing from the hundreds, nay thousands of terrible bedroom projects we have to put up with these days is a sense of humour. Just having a track title like Jazz Hands Of Doom ticks that often absent box. A fast electric piano-led tune from Ben that uses the fretless bass of Aaron Clark to great effect, it is stylistically in total contrast to the previous track but does not feel out of place in the slightest.
The lyrical concerns rise well above the all too common “woe is me, the world is a bastard, we’re all going to die” trite navel-gazing of so much modern so-called “alternative” music. With only two instrumentals on the album, a goodly amount of attention has been paid to the lyric writing. Tackling diverse subjects such as cloning, personality splits, oblique love songs, possible treatises on vegetarianism with a twist in the tale (or tail, perchance?), and on The Ellsburg Cycle what may be a plea to the political elite and/or the press to experience the consequences of their actions, all within a darkly mysterious alt-rock ballad that The Cure would have been proud of, sailing off on a gorgeous flurry of guitar notes and spacey keyboards. All this occurs with a never literal interpretation, and in a manner that intrigues, showing that whoever writes these words shows a fair degree of talent.
In conclusion, this is another really good album released in a year that has seen a glut of fine albums, so much so it is hard to keep up!
You thought I had finished? Not quite…
As occasionally happens, there seems to something in the air at the moment, as a current crop of bands who all loosely fall within the prog genre are using a blend of finely honed youthful (and in some cases not so youthful!) aggression and an actual enjoyment in their noise making that imbues their efforts with a collective joie de vivre. I would add The Mercury Tree along with their countrymen (and women) The Tea Club, Moe Tar, and a fair few others to the growing list of Brit bands that include The Fierce And The Dead, Knifeworld, and self-proclaimed “noisy prog bastards” Trojan Horse (a great phrase and one I will attempt to initiate a “scene” with – order your t-shirt now!). These bands all refuse to stare morosely at their shoes, and hopefully also refuse to have publicity shots wherein they stand in back alleys looking moody, dressed in black.
They are all IN YOUR FACE so you better sit up and take notice. It helps that they all make a damn good racket. You’d be doing yourself no favours missing out, so instead of spending £15 on the latest refried 70s leftovers, spend it seeing one of these bands live. They need folk like us to pay to see them live in order to survive. If this NPB scene (heehee) dies out through lack of interest, it is no-one’s fault but ours.
01. Pitchless Tone (5:27)
02. Vestigal (5:30)
03. Otoliths (10:55)
04. Mazz Jathy (6:47)
05. To Serve Man (5:28)
06. The Ellsberg Cycle (5:12)
07. False Meaning (4:29)
08. Artifracture (4:05)
09. Jazz Hands Of Doom (6:04)
10. Rappel (3:26)
Total Time – 57:27
Ben Spees – Guitar, Keyboards & Vocals
Connor Reilly – Drums
Oliver Campbell – Vocals & Bass (1, 2, 6, 8 & 10)
Aaron Clark – Vocals, Lead Vocals (6) Fretless Bass (3, 4, 5, 7 & 9)
Record Label: Independent
Year Of Release: 2014