Air Museum

(Thrill Jockey; 2011)

By Ryan Pratt | 24 May 2011

I tried to sell my copy of Choral (2009) not three months after I’d purchased it, which should be an indicator of how little I used to care about Mountains. I’d tested out Choral in a myriad of ways: while daydreaming on my balcony; during walks through my Greek-flavored Toronto neighborhood; and glancing indiscriminately from city-bus windows at the world on its way to work. These experiences hinted at a promise that, sort of like Mountains’ pear-shaped compositions, failed to blossom the way I’d hoped. If you’re familiar with the record, you can probably namedrop the all-too-short harmonics piece that could’ve explored an hour’s worth of ambient ear-candy, or the nine-minute zone-out which morphs into a mesmerizing guitar coda only seconds before fade-out. So hesitantly stationary were these structures that it was almost as if Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg had spent days tweaking knobs and honing textures, if only to improvise on the actual compositions.

No one really bothered with this critique upon Choral‘s release—I get it; demanding structure on an ambient record can equate to missing the point—but instead fascinated over Mountains’ mystical classification. The duo’s seamless merger of acoustic instrumentation and pastoral electronics lay at the epicenter of the record’s appeal, yet for all of Air Museum‘s ideological divides—as their first LP recorded without relying on computers, and their first recorded in a studio—that nitty-gritty discourse hasn’t been disrupted in the least. Is it interesting that Holtkamp and Anderegg customized their studio space in a way that freed their material from computer-processing? Of course—it shows a steadfast refusal to repeat themselves. But holy shit, should the greater emphasis of the duo’s reorganization not be that Mountains sounds completely different? After all, a catalog of careful nuances (however accolade-worthy) rarely affords the sort of knee-jerk reaction “Thousand Square” gets on first listen, with its throbbing modular synths percolating an alien melody.

And that, Mountains fans, is something to soak up. Because beneath the giddy left-turn suggested by their precise rhythms and the irony of a recording that banned computer interference sounding so electronic, Holtkamp and Anderegg haven’t changed their game-plan in the least. “January 17” may introduce a horde of synths, teeming like a Kosmische wave that takes several minutes to crest, but they blur into harmonic drones with the same conservative command that accentuated Choral‘s organic qualities. To boot, Air Museum retains the improvisational touch of that 2009 outing, meaning that its songs either undulate on a one-way street toward feverish climax (as on “Sequel”) or aim to flat-line over a plateau of layered bliss (“Newsprint”). Hell, even Mountains’ tendency to fade away while on the verge of a new direction gets played out a few times; “Blue Lanterns on East Oxford” and “Backwards Crossover” seem predisposed to backing off their gauzy daydreams as soon as its elements begin crystallizing into something poignant. These teases might’ve driven me crazy before but now I hear them as graceful exhales after the storm throes, studied post-sex silences that counter Air Museum‘s flurried peaks. Sometimes, amid Mountains’ infinite-chasing exercises, it’s nice to find signs of closure.

Modest vignettes aside, Air Museum lays to rest the shortlist of uncertainties I’ve pinned on Mountains in the past—mostly by not changing much. Its cosmetic discrepancies, while exposing the band’s approach from a different angle, have also provided yet another cloud of mystique for fans that would rather talk about the band categorically than sit down and listen in. And although it seems either opportunistic or senseless to advise listeners against reading about Mountains in the last paragraph of a Mountains record review, it’s far better than approaching their work with the beleaguered expectation of electronica, ambient, noise or, in my case, post-rock. As someone who nearly sold his copy of Choral under that pretense, I assure you: these records are too opaque, their fusion too exacting, to be understood over the course of a few listens. But the payoff is totally worth it.