By David Abravanel | 8 October 2008
What exactly is this? Strange Attractor, one of Mercury Rev’s latest albums, was released as a free download, while its sister release Snowflake Midnight hit physical and digital retailers. To add to the oddity, Strange Attractor is an all-instrumental album, making it pretty easy to guess which album is intended to receive more attention. So, does this really count as a new Mercury Rev release, or is it a companion piece to Snowflake Midnight? Well, yes and no. Strange Attractor is firmly in line with a marginal continuum in Mercury Rev’s history, one that started with the Harmony Rockets side project and Paralyzed Mind Of The Archangel Void, a live recording from 1995 that exhibited a more delicate, spacey, and purely instrumental side of the band. Mercury Rev revisited these haunted moods on the short instrumental pieces stuttered along 1998’s breakthrough, Deserter’s Songs, before recording a full-length instrumental think piece in the form of Hello Blackbird, the 2005 soundtrack to Robinson Savary’s dreamy film about French aerialists, Bye Bye Blackbird.
In other words, there’s a set of parallel paths Mercury Rev have taken. On the one hand, we have the psychedelic explosions and withdrawn aftershocks from a band of excitingly unstable rockers. On the other track is a more conceptual collaboration, ridden with icy waves of sound and often smothered in a late-night haze. If one is to really trace backward on this path, it’s pertinent to mention that some of the material from the first Mercury Rev album, Yerself Is Steam, started off as pieces written for short films – most notably “Ice Age,” a soaring ebb and flow that became “Sweet Oddysee Of A Cancer Cell T’ Th’ Center Of Yer Heart.” Did I mention that sides one and two of Yerself were designated “Rocket” and “Harmony,” respectively? So, okay, scratch the “parallel” idea.
Still, I’m no closer to clearly answering the question posited at the beginning—how to define Strange Attractor. Another route is to look at the music. Everything here is cold and tense, like the surface of a wintry, frozen lake. “Persistence And The Apis Mellifera” sustains a galloping underbelly of microsounds, while meandering horns and guitar squeals swirl nervously stagnant. “Incident On Abeel Street” is all squirrelly synthesizer chimes, like Múm’s “Random Summer” with heavy eyelids. Those modular-sounding chimes permeate the membranes of almost every track here, the surviving fish asjusting to life below the ice. “Because Because Because,” meanwhile, is closest to sounding like anything on Snowflake Midnight, mainly because of a midway introduction of steadily churning drums, an element markedly absent from most of the rest of Strange Attractor. I have to put on a sweater just listening to this, but then again, there’s nothing wrong with an album that makes a listener want to brew some hot cocoa.
There’s still the question, then, as to why Strange Attractor is a free album, released simultaneously with an album that’s for sale. Cynically, one could venture a guess that Mercury Rev consider Strange Attractor to somehow be inferior material—outtakes from Snowflake Midnight that had to come out somehow, and here’s a way to do it while looking progressive! Of course, that would be almost certainly wrong, as Mercury Rev are far too pure of soul and intention—no really, I mean it. What’s left is the possibility that Strange Attractor is meant to be treasured in such a way that, no, it will not be heavily promoted, nor will it yield any singles. It’s not a commercial album because it could never be, just like Hello Blackbird and Harmony Rockets’ material weren’t going to satisfy Rev fans hungry for another “Opus 40,” and probably should have been released free of charge, had the option been viable at the time.
And, there’s the answer: Strange Attractor exists outside of the business end of popular music; nothing is taken from the listener in exchange except for time and hard drive space, and thus there are far fewer expectations or rules to follow. Strange Attractor‘s method of release is an insurance policy against those looking for psych-songs with lyrics. It’s accessible because it crawls under your skin, not because you’ll have any choruses to hum or couplets to muse over. I’ll eventually get around to thawing my soul, but for now, I rather like the frost.