11 Pink Helicopters in the Coral Sky EP
By Brent Ables | 2 March 2012
If I were to say that 11 Pink Helicopters in the Coral Sky feels like an epilogue to last year’s great Fuck Death, would you hold it against me? Carey Mercer—secondary school English teacher, demon conjurer—surely knows the value of a good epilogue; his gesture of releasing this twenty-minute collection of brief instrumentals online, out of nowhere, at a pay-what-you-want rate indicates something of his own attitude towards the project. Safe to write it off as minor Mercer, then? A collection of “leftovers,” to use Conrad’s unflattering description, that have none of the staying power of Fuck Death or Paul’s Tomb (2010) before that?
Let’s start with Fuck Death, because an epilogue doesn’t have much sense apart from its parent text. Or I can start with Conrad’s review, which eloquently and passionately lauded a grandly ambitious record concerned with “upper-case Beauty and upper-case War”—a record that teemed with something like religiosity.
A few months later, I’m still trying to hear that record. Because in Fuck Death I hear something insular and claustrophobic; I hear music made by one who ran away from upper-case Beauty and upper-case War and “sings to us like we’re someone he’s hiding with” (to use Kaylen’s memorable phrase). Concerning himself with cowardice, Mercer adopted the persona of a coward, and made suitably undignified music to soundtrack a flight from the harsh, incriminating light.
That it was still kind of (lower-case) beautiful is attributable less, I think, to the grandeur of Mercer’s themes or the resonance of his lyrics than to his skill as a sonic architect. Even a twelve-minute song called “Drowning Pigs”—which is little more than a minimalist dirge that briefly comes to life only to find itself trapped, flail about, and then die for good—holds a befuddling bounty. There’s just something about the way Mercer shapes sound that makes me feel compelled to listen, as if the music would die without actively being engaged. As if I would die without actively engaging it.
11 Pink Helicopters, in all of its twenty minutes, is an attempt to distill that “something” into the most compact possible form, and takes care not to not to betray its essence through undue explication. It foregoes lyrics, and thus vocals, because it’s concerned not with characters and ideas but with mysteries of tonality and timbre. It is an exploration of texture and atmosphere, of what happens to the Blackout Beach aesthetic when it is sundered from virtually all relation to structure, development, pacing, and other by-products of songcraft. As such, it is perhaps best understood as Mercer’s tentative first step into the realm of ambient music.
Of course, it sounds nothing like any ambient record you’ve ever heard. Its elements are not the pristine drones of Stars of the Lid or the warm, looping chords of Eluvium, but the noises we’ve come to associate with Mercer: heavily processed electric guitars played by a palsied hand and fed through amplifiers that are literally dying, along with mutated keyboard chords and a healthy dose of incidental noise. And in a way, what he is doing with these elements is familiar too, the difference in how this record collects up the residue of Frog Eyes’ and Blackout Beach’s music and places it center stage. 11 Pink Helicopters feels like eleven of those rare moments in Frog Eyes and Blackout Beach where the focus isn’t on Mercer’s voice.
This isn’t always the case. “Sign of Harry” is centered around a straightforward guitar melody embedded in a warm acoustic glow, and “Dancing to Brew Up Joy in the Body” has a definite sense of development: a single anthemic guitar line fades in gradually, summoned by Mercer’s primal drums and the atmospheric hum that murmurs across this record. But most of these pieces seem marginal in the literal sense of the word, as if they took shape on the edges of Mercer’s established aesthetic. This would explain why Mercer chooses to cut off so many of these tracks mid-stride. Songs have clear-cut endings and beginnings; these don’t.
But these pieces never feel incomplete. Just the opposite: each is a distinctly evocative view into a strange but tranquil reality that Mercer somehow stumbled upon in the course of the epic voyages of his last few albums. I listen to the three minutes of “Pink Helicopters” and find myself in a different place at the end of the song than I was when I started; “Trumpet of Taste Ambassador” has no right to be so cathartic in its 49 seconds. For all the wild abandon of Frog Eyes, Mercer is a masterfully precise summoner of moods and affect, and 11 Pink Helicopters is a quietly fierce argument for that side of his talent.