[Warning: This review may contain some utter bollocks based on a limited understanding of musical theory. Strap yourself in, I may turn this thing over.]
Straight off the bat I feel I’m pitching to those of you who feel that the music you’re listening to is already sufficiently weird-sounding. Well, give this album a go. There’s some extra high-octane weird in there and it’s worth at least trying to explain why.
If you’re not yet familiar with The Mercury Tree then search for their videos on YouTube (and I urge you to do so). It soon becomes clear that this band are doing their utmost to experiment and come up with something properly new. There are some elements in their older stuff that will remind you of other bands, but that’s OK. We need a frame of reference. In the past, The Mercury Tree have flexed their experimental muscles by messing about with tempo. Such was the effect that one YouTuber helpfully suggested that they get a Metronome. Now they’ve moved on… to Microtones.
The Mercury Tree use Micro-tuning extensively in Spidermilk. Since we were in our mothers’ womb (or in that petri dish, or wherever it is you came from) our ears and brains have been accustomed to music with 12 notes, with the same pitch in each octave. Notes are clearly defined as tones and semi-tones. Some tuner devices show you the frequency of the note expressed in Hertz. It is maths and science and it is set in stone. Micro-tones are intervals smaller than a semitone and we don’t normally hear them unless we are just passing through as a note is bent, or during Glissando, whereby a continuous up or down slide between two notes occurs. But we are accustomed to these being transitional on the way to one of the clearly-defined tones or semi-tones. Not microtone instruments, oh no. Twelve? This goes up to eleven. Sorry, couldn’t resist. It goes up to seventeen.
You might say that you need a special ear to find it works for you, because it is like hearing someone play “out of tune”. It would be better to consider that microtones open a new level of subtlety and nuance of chords and harmony (or disharmony). Besides, that phrase “out of tune” is a relative term. If every instrument is tuned the same way then in relation to all the others they are in tune, no? Even so, you might just not like it because it requires suspending what you think you know about how music should sound.
I started by trying hard to wrap my head around this new music – it is somewhat alien. I think I now see the point. In fact, this could be the music of the future! The musical directors who compile the music for sci-fi movies, like that playing in the Mos Eisley Cantina or in any of the alien planets in Star Trek, probably never heard microtones or dismissed them as just… er… too alien? Consequently, ultimately, screen sci-fi music sounds, disappointingly, quite terrestrial. The closest I heard to microtones is the snippet of Klingon Opera, Aktuh and Maylota, as sung by Worf in TNG, Series 5, Episode 08, but he may just be off-key. I suppose composing music for sci-fi is like trying to imagine a colour that nobody’s seen yet.
Having said all this, Spidermilk sounds less alien the more you hear it. Even that odd harmony. Sometimes the microtones just sit over the basic rock track like the patina of lacquered hard-earned rust on a newly hot-rodded Chevy pickup. Sometimes the microtones are the bedrock of the songs, like the chassis of an outlandish coach-built car, as heard in the second track, Vestments, and especially the third track, Arc of An Ilk.
The microtones are now sounding less alien to me. It’s a matter of perspective. For example, percussion, though some types require tuning, is sometimes at odds with the music it accompanies as it has no real need for definite pitch. We ignore the pitch of a snare or a cymbal. Perhaps percussion relies on its lack of pitch to stand out as the identifiable rhythm track, like Bill Bruford’s tightly wound snare. Drums positively jump out because of this. Our ears, trained since the womb, find this perfectly acceptable, required, even! And yet, if it is an instrument that we rely on to give us our relative pitch for melody and harmony, then it will sound – strange.
On the other hand, perhaps it is just taking the idea of bending a note or perhaps detuning a bass, like with Djent, to a point where the pitch starts to sound less defined but takes on a new degree of power. Bands like Tesseract are known to use this technique, though it is a bit of a jump to microtones from their bass-note-bending.
My ear evidently isn’t that special as I have concentrated so much on the musical content that I have overlooked the lyrical content. A bit. I think it is safe to say that this band is so keen on producing something that stands out that they are not ones to skimp on the lyrical content. Just assume that the lyrics are not covering the sorts of themes typical of the rock genre. At one point they sing: “Nipples give spider milk”. This means spiders are one up on the platypus. Make of that what you will.
The Mercury Tree’s mission statement, to make “…something beautiful yet completely unfamiliar” is only partially accomplished. I left this album on the back burner for a while because, I can’t lie, I needed to ground myself with some good old-fashioned music based on the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. I was surprised to find that returning to Spidermilk is like visiting an old friend. Last I saw him he was locked in a room with rubber wallpaper, but he’s allowed to sit around the cast iron table in the garden now, with his housemates (one of whom is, apparently, Napoleon) and there is a custom Chevy pickup on the drive. Having not listened to microtones for about a week, I’m surprised how many musical moments I remember. They resonate with me – and I’m enjoying it and I am hearing the beauty, the odd, mind-warping beauty, in this unconventional music.
So; Beautiful? PASS! Unfamiliar? FAIL! But clearly the end results are not overshadowed by the methodology. The music stands up on its own.
Four Reasons to get Spidermilk:
1. This is progressive rock. Avoiding this complex and challenging music from a truly progressive band means, perhaps, that you don’t really want to hear progressive music. (If that sounds like a challenge, it is. I am literally challenging you to give this a go.)
2. I caught my feet tapping away there and realised that my head was bobbing on more than one occasion and if you stick with it it’s just like listening to any complex music – once you get past the complexity or oddness or whatever it is that you like to challenge yourself with, this is a cracking album.
3. The Mercury Tree may have done for harmony what Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s Ice Cream For Crow did for knees-ups. Do you need an epiphany before this music makes sense? No. Possibly. Yes. No. (Yes?). Do you want someone to remove your entire nervous system and then wring it out through a metal mangle? Yes? Then you absolutely DO need to get this album.
4. By far the best reason to get Spidermilk is that we can’t all live in a room with bouncy walls and drive a rusty-patina hot-rod Chevy, but we can occasionally visit our “challenging” friend who does.
01. I Am a Husk (4:48)
02. Vestments (4:49)
03. Ark of An Ilk (6:36)
04. I’ll Pay (6:29)
05. Interglacial (1:45)
06. Superposition of Silhouettes (3:43)
07. Kept Man (3:16)
08. Throw Up My Hands (3:00)
09. Disremembered (7:07)
10. Braking For Genius (3:32)
11. Tides of the Spine (4:34)
Total Time – 52:39
Ben Spees – Voice, Guitar, Keyboards
Connor Reilly – Drums
Oliver Campbell – Bass
Igliashon Jones – Guitar
~ Special guest:
Tony Mowe – Alto & Baritone Saxophone
Record Label: Independent
Recorded: 2018-19 at College of Wizardry & Bongo Fury, Portland, OR
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 4th April 2019