Mercury Rev - All Is Dream: 4CD Deluxe Edition

Mercury Rev – All Is Dream (Remastered & Expanded)

Just where do you start with Mercury Rev? How do you try to define them?

They feel like a dream to me, swimming into my consciousness in the late ’90s with the remarkable Deserter’s Songs album and then bubbling up mystically again in 2001 with All is Dream. I distinctly remember seeing them perform this album’s staggering opening song The Dark is Rising on BBC TV from Glastonbury as the sun was setting – it was a truly transcendent moment. That performance blew me away and that song remains one of my favourite songs of all time – there’s nothing quite like it. Nearly 20 years later the eclectic and frankly marvellous Cherry Red label have re-released this gem of an album in different formats – firstly with a comprehensive deluxe 4 CD edition at the end of 2019, and more recently with a gorgeously presented red marbled vinyl double  album. The vagaries of COVID affected mail has seemingly delayed the arrival of the vinyl version to ‘TPA Towers’ until very recently so this review is a little delayed, but frankly, The Progressive Aspect needs little excuse to focus on this delightful and dazzlingly original album.

The album’s front cover appropriately features the 1991 painting Breakthrough Dreaming by artist and mystic Jennifer Hathaway (it looks particularly resplendent on the vinyl edition), and the imagery is perfect for the psychedelic dreamscapes that Jonathan Donahue, Grasshopper, Jeff Mercel  and David Friddman create with such finesse and imagination. The atmosphere is immediately set with the masterpiece that is The Dark is Rising,  which starts with an almost James Bond-like soaring orchestral flourish before receding to Jeff Mercel’s simple, touching piano over which Jonathan Donahue’s plaintive fragile voice breaks your heart. Larry Packer’s gentle violin adds even more pathos, if that even felt possible… but then the orchestral flourish breaks back in gloriously to swell your heart. The contrast between the crushingly sad vocal and piano passages with vast swathes of soaring orchestration has such an emotional impact – you literally don’t know whether to cry or smile. The concluding section elegiacally carries us to the end with ‘moth-light’ guitars from Grasshopper over the still lilting piano, Marc Guy’s emotive French Horn and gossamer-thin female backing vocals. Donahue intones sadly:

“But it can seem surprising, When you find yourself alone
And now the dark is rising, and a brand New Moon is born
I’d always dreamed I’d love you, I never dreamed I’d lose you
In my dreams I’m always strong”

If that doesn’t break your heart, nothing will, and if you do nothing else after reading this review, at the very least search out The Dark is Rising if you have never heard it before and just sit down and listen to it. I strongly suspect once you have heard just that one track you will feel compelled to search out this album – it really is THAT good!

What could be said is that Mercury Rev might have shot their bolt with the first song because in truth it is the undoubted highlight of the album. However, whilst the other songs may not have quite the same immediate emotional resonance, they weave their own inimitable magic and mystery. The Tides of the Moon rumbles along eerily until Grasshopper injects a keening guitar passage and Joel Eckhaus adds a spectral bowed saw. Jonathan Donahue’s fragile high-pitched voice is unique, and may be an acquired taste for some, but it adds to the otherworldly quality of the sound. On Chains, which features some cavernous drum sounds from Mercel, Donahue’s voice is so high and fragile that you expect him to shatter into pieces… but at least that sounds like a normal song from a band on planet Earth. The frankly weird Lincoln’s Eyes is incredibly high on the ‘Weird-Shit-O-Meter’ and sounds like it was gifted to the band by visitors from another dimension. Otherworldly soprano vocals, from Mary Gavassi Friddman, take us into this strange world and Donahue’s voice sounds like he’s singing to us from deep underground. Out of this bewildering musical landscape the band crash in on a wave, above it all the bowed saw and guitar swoop and soar like wraiths, and then it all just drops to almost nothing. Donahue’s voice is left practically naked on a desolate plain until he too expires, and the song drifts out on a melancholic coda of Rhodes piano from Justin Rosso, the eerie bowed saw returning to finish this ghost story of a song… like nothing else I’ve heard to be honest!

Mercury Rev can be conventional and Nite and Fog rolls along optimistically and melodically, and A Drop in Time skips along almost joyously with strings and female choir. You’re My Queen builds and builds triumphantly to a shattering crescendo, soon becoming a live favourite. Spiders and Flies is altogether more delicate with Donahue singing touchingly over piano and Mellotron.

The album finishes with the dramatic Hercules, which feels like the bookending epic at the opposite end to widescreen glory of The Dark is Rising. An intoxicating surge of piano, Mellotron, acoustic guitars and drums pours onwards with increasing tempo and volume until the wave gloriously breaks and Grasshopper’s guitars scream and screech crazily through the eddies of music. Donahue’s voice seems stronger and more assured as he lyrically strikes out for the shore:

“Words climb your tongue by the rung like a ladder to speak
Drifting as you go but you row until it seems All is One, All is Mind, All is Lost and then you find,

Fittingly, the album recedes gently, like waking from a dream, and it’s over – a marvellous finale to a fantastic album filled with magic and mystery.

In the interesting sleeve notes, Grasshopper notes: “During the making of Deserter’s Songs we were like a bunch of wounded parrots abandoned by pirates. During All is Dream we were like peacocks… both colourful, but different…”, which seems a very apt description of the band’s kaleidoscopic and technicoloured musical textures. Mercury Rev originally formed at New York State University in Buffalo by students wanting to create soundtracks for nature documentaries and student films. The cinematic roots of their beginnings continued to imbue their work as they created music for the mind to create visual images and evoke strong emotions. In All is Dream they may have reached their zenith with a stunning and strangely bizarre work of dazzling imagination.

For those familiar with this album, some may be wondering whether it is worth investing in either (or both!) of these expanded editions – the answer is categorically YES. Both versions have an abundance of fascinating curiosities which are definitely worth delving into with this peculiar band. There are excellent covers of Black Sabbath’s Planet Caravan, which sounds positively cosmic, and a suitably psychedelic, shimmering version of The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. They show their versatility with a campfire version of the cowboy classic Streets of Laredo and a sombre version of JJ Cale’s I Keep a Close Watch. There are even sparse versions of classical pieces by Chopin and Satie. Alongside these, there are demos and outtakes which contain some gems that reveal facets of their creative process.

The CD deluxe version has the advantage of containing an outstanding ‘In Concert’ set culled from shows across Europe and America in 2001 and 2002, segued together as one gig, including a rousing version of Bowie’s Jean Genie. Additionally, it also contains the live CD Black Session from Paris in 2001, which showcased the album. Both of these discs reveal what a striking live outfit they were (and still are), bewitching the audiences with distinctive, emotive and stirring versions of the album’s songs. Of course, the vinyl version wonderfully displays the incredible artwork, red marbled vinyl and the eye-catching presentation of this truly special album.

Jonathan Donahue sums up All is Dream in the sleeve notes thus: “It’s a weird astral album musically, and yes the symbolism lyrically runs many layers down and deep – different coloured layers of rock, soil and ash on an archaeology dig.”

All is Dream is a truly beautiful album which simultaneously breaks the heart and stirs the soul – dig deep into the layers of rock and ride the waves in your mind. An album originally infused with symbols of rebirth, in these new versions All is Dream is gloriously reborn.

Vinyl Edition:
Side A

01. The Dark is Rising
02. Tides of the Moon
03. Chains
04. Lincoln’s Eyes
05. Nite and Fog

Side B
01. Little Rhymes
02. A Drop in Time
03. You’re My Queen
04. Spiders and Flies
05. Hercules

Side C
01. Planet Caravan (Black Sabbath)
02. Streets of Laredo (Trad: Arranged by Mercury Rev)
03. I Keep A Close Watch (JJ Cale)
04. Nocturne in C# Minor, Opus 27, No. 1 (Frederick Chopin)
05. Blue Skies (Irving Berlin)
06. Mascara Tears
07. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (The Beatles)

Side D
01. The Brook Room
02. Silver and Gold
03. A Drop in Time (Demo)
04. Where the Mountains Start to Rise
05. Back Into the Sun (You’re the One)
06. A Quick One at Artie’s 44
07. Mr. Moonlight Will Come
08. Cool Waves
09. Hercules (Demo)

CD Version:
CD One

(Track listing the same as Side A & B above)

CD Two: B-Sides, Demos & Outtakes
01. Planet Caravan (Black Sabbath)
02. Streets of Laredo (Trad: Arranged by Mercury Rev)
03. I Keep A Close Watch (JJ Cale)
04. Nocturne In C# Minor, Opus 27, No. 1 (Frederick Chopin)
05. Blue Skies (Irving Berlin)
06. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (The Beatles)
07. Spiders and Flies
08. Gymnopedies #3 (Eric Satie)
09. Mascara Tears
10. The Brook Room
11. Silver and Gold
12. A Drop in Time
13. Where the Mountains Start to Rise
14. Nite and Fog
15. Back Into the Sun (You’re the One)
16. A Quick One at Artie’s 44
17. Mr. Moonlight Will Come
18. Boy’s Choir
19. Cool Waves
20. Hercules

CD Three: In Concert
01. The Dark is Rising (Dublin 2001)
02. Tides of the Moon (Copenhagen 2002)
03. Chains (Dallas 2002)
04. Nite and Fog (Ghent 2001)
05. Lincoln’s Eyes (Lille 2001)
06. The Saw Song (Detroit 2001)
07. Planet Caravan (Munich 2001)
08. Little Rhymes (Los Angeles 2001)
09. You’re My Queen (Milano 2001)
10. Spiders and Flies (Oslo 2002)
11. Hercules (Clermont-Ferrand 2002)
12. Jean Genie (David Bowie) (Copenhagen 2002)

CD Four: The Black Sessions (Paris 2001)
01. The Funny Bird
02. Tides of the Moon
03. Tonite it Shows
04. Lincoln’s Eyes
05. The Saw Song
06. You’re My Queen
07. Goddess on a Hiway
08. Holes
09. Opus 40
10. Spiders and Flies
11. The Dark is Rising

Jonathan Donahue – Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Grasshopper – Moth-Light Guitars
Jeff Mercel – Drums, Piano
David Friddman – Bass, Mellotron
~ with:
Tony Visconti – Mellotron & String Arrangement
Mary Gavassi Friddman – Soprano Vocals
Justin Rosso – Rhodes Piano
Rex L White – Pedal Steel
Suzanne Thorpe – Flute
Joel Eckhaus – Bowed Saw
Aaron Hurwitz – Hammond Organ
Marc Guy – French Horn
Larry Packer – Solo Violin
Gregor Kitzis – Violins
Maxine Neuman – Cello
Bethany Crescini – Child Vocals
Katy Fox, Amy Helm & Deb Curley – Vocals
Sarah Adams, Martha Mooke & Laura Seaton – Violas

Record Label: Cherry Red Records
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Dates of Release: LP 28th August 2020 | CD 29th November 2019
(Original Album released August 2001)

– Yerself is Steam (1991)
– Boces (1993)
– See You on the Other Side (1995)
– Deserter’s Songs (1998)
– All is Dream (2001)
– The Secret Migration (2005)
– The Essential Mercury Rev: Stillness Breathes 1991 – 2006 (Compilation) (2006)
– Hello Blackbird (Film Soundtrack) (2006)
– Snowflake Midnight (2008)
– The Light in You (2015)
– Bobby Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited (2019)

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