If I told you Mercury Tree have been roped into that driest of sub-genres “math rock” in the past it may put you off reading further. However, this Tree do human things with the dusty academic description that make this a highly enjoyable listen and a successful venture into alt-prog songwriting. Not only that but they have a knowing sense of humour too, as the track title Ether/Ore attests (see what they did, there?). Also, having been variously described as “art rock”, “heavy prog” and probably “vaudeville dance” can only indicate that The Mercury Tree are not a band inclined to be pigeon-holed, and rightly so.
Formed in the mid-noughties by guitarist, keyboard player and singer Ben Spees in Portland, Oregon, the band, as is the wont with such small, independent mobile units*, has gone through a few early line-up changes to arrive at the stable core trio listed at the bottom of this review.
Permutations mixes avant stylings with fast’n’furious syncopation and crunching riffage to produce an intriguing amalgam, particularly highlighted on the labyrinthine title track, ten minutes of inspired and carefully arranged lunacy that will have fans of Bent Knee, MoeTar, and their ilk drooling on their nightshirts with satisfaction.
When they take their foot off the gas for the following Ether/Ore it is to enter a land of dislocated strangeitude where Eno wrote Here Come The Warm Jets with Kayo Dot as his backing band.
Not forgetting melody, Placeholder is an off-kilter but gorgeously languorous jazzy interlude that has verses that simply should not fit, but do, in the way Robert Wyatt could sing a passage from James Joyce in 13/8 and make it sound like the most natural thing on Earth. There is some nice treated brass (or synth processing?) and vocals on this one that puts one’s head into the “woozy space”.
So, what does Mr. Spees sing about? Well, it seems a professorial and occasionally dark approach to personal politics is the default setting. His lyrics are intelligent and definitely deserve your attention, while never swamping the song to its detriment, and all without ever being too clever or self-referential. No point in quoting any here as they’re all on the Bandcamp page, but I’ll leave this here…
“this all makes sense to someone whose head’s densely diluted.
this all makes sense to someone whose world intruded on mine.”
That was from Sympathesizer, possibly the darkest lyric here, and as close as it gets to the all too prevalent “woe is me” of dark progressive music, yet it is done in such an oblique fashion that self-pitying cliché is completely avoided. Musically, this one is a dark and naturally synth-heavy symphony that exudes brooding menace, and about as different from the previously dissected Placeholder as can be, yet it is identifiably by the same band.
Permutations is The Mercury Tree’s fourth album, and they have developed naturally to arrive at a place where Ben has justifiable confidence in his intricate and tight arrangements, performed with panache by a now stable core line-up. A big leap forward from 2014’s previous long player Countenance, this is not one of those albums whereby the second you turn it off you cannot recall any of it, another all too familiar trait in die moderne progwelt.
Prometheist sees the band lurch into very heavy avant-metal territory, and there’s even some judiciously sparse use of throat shredding that works a treat, and I’m no fan of the style. The album closes with another ten minute epic, and a marvellously light-of-touch modernistic art rock trip awaits the listener who has already been taken up the mountain, down the valley, and into the mall via parachute on a journey of many unexpected twists and turns…Permutations, even!
[*(c) Robert Fripp]
01. Symptoms (6:59)
02. Exhume the Worst (4:56)
03. Permutations (10:42)
04. Ether / Ore (4:08)
05. Placeholder (4:32)
06. Unintelligible (5:06)
07. Sympathesizer (4:42)
08. Seek And Release (5:46)
09. Prometheist (9:00)
10. Deep Five (10:32)
Total time 66:23
Ben Spees – Guitar, Keyboard, Voice
Connor Reilly – Drums
Oliver Campbell – Bass, Voice
Aaron Clark – Space Guitar (tracks 7 & 10)
Tony Mowe – Alto & Baritone Saxophone (tracks 4 & 7)
Record Label: n/a
Year Of Release: 2016