By Trevor Morrison
How frightening is the thought of your own death, alone, in remote wilderness with only a barely flickering fire to keep you company? Not a soul is near. You are alone. There’s snow on the ground- a decent inch or two. Occasionally you can hear tree branches bend and break beneath the accumulated weight. The fire is going out. Night is swiftly approaching. You look up and see a sliver of sky, obscured by lofty trees. Pines to be specific. A stray breeze shakes free some snow from the trees, causing some to powder your campsite. You exhale and a deep cloud of breath stains the air. Within this natural, serene beauty something creeps: death. You could die up here and no one would know for days; weeks, even. Yet you sit, complicit with the unwritten contract between yourself and Mother Nature.
This is the scene in the opening track of Mount Eerie’s newest album, Sauna. The gentle crackles of a fire softly accentuate the background of a peaceful, yet predatory organ drone, occasionally lashing out at the listener to make sure they haven’t fallen asleep, much like the duty of the nervous system, waking up a nodding off camper.
About halfway through the track, humanity takes hold, the coffee kicks in, with vocals from Phil Elverum, the creative master behind Mount Eerie. Delicate acoustic guitar and minimal drums soon follow after. As the track progresses, the drone gets more intense, ballooning like smoke as more voices add to the mix – a two-part female harmony. Light as snow. But then, the track jolts and ends, just like that, as if you’ve finally awoken, or worse yet, finally passed on. You’re the authority on that, boss.
This feeling of being consumed by nature is not a new concept drawn up by Elverum. It’s a constant theme that drives his music forward. All of his recordings are done in analog at his log cabin recording studio in Anacortes, WA, a town right on the northwest shore of the state. On a first listen of one of Elverum’s albums, words that might come to mind could be wood, fire, trees, water, air, snow, rain, etc. His albums are all very natural sounding, much like the lyrics. He paints stories of the mundane or the everyday in such a way that still sound boring, but that’s the point. Life is boring at times. It needs to be.
But let’s be real here: this wasn’t made to cause extrasensory epiphanies. This was made for album’s sake. And it’s a damn good album at that. Fitting snugly with Elverum’s recent projects, 2012’s Clear Moon and Ocean Roar; Sauna features a wide array of instrumental cues to keep the album feeling fresh, yet connected, ranging from woodsy, philosophical folk, to the harrows of drone metal, to barebones structures of indie rock, much like his previous albums under this name of Mount Eerie.
The album is broken into three parts, the first beginning with the ten-minute title track I described earlier, and traversing into three downtrodden tracks, most notably “Dragon,” which has that two-part female harmony again, along with quietly strummed guitar, ambient plane noise from overhead, and the sense of snow falling. It’s so naturally tranquil it almost feels unreal.
The second phase of Sauna comes after an Elverum staple, a track entitled “(Something),” which in this case is a two minute track of polyrhythmic marimba & xylophone oscillations, offering a playful air in this moment of transition. The next track, “Boat,” is by far the most straightforward song Elverum has put out in a while, housing angsty guitars, shrieking with feedback, which fights with chaotically distorted drums like a vicious storm, all while his faint but confident vocals stay constant in the vortex of sound. It seamlessly transitions into “Planet,” a quick track that’s more of an extension on the previous track, but nicely cleanses the pallet after the sonic fury of “Boat.” This is needed because the last track of the second act is “Pumpkin,” a fantastic, doom-folk leaning introspective track dealing with the mundane yet oh-so important.
The last third of the album is capped off by the stellar drone piece “Spring,” which showcases Elverum’s full breadth of instrumental prowess. He utilizes gongs, bells, analog synth, punishing guitar feedback, piercing cymbals and his full team of vocalists to recount some sort of epic poem, backed up by an instrumental that has to be what menacing snowstorms must sound like. This song combined with the title track represent the two monuments that bind this album together in style and in scope.
The last third of the album is the weakest of the thirds, in my opinion, sacrificing a lot of time with goofy, Books-like piano and string plucking on appropriately titled “Books,” which honestly could have been replaced with more drone and I would have been happy. The last two tracks, “This” and “Youth” are two classic Mount Eerie sounding tracks and don’t offer any surprises, which is a bit disappointing after the monstrous drone of “Spring.”
In conclusion, this album is aesthetically perfect for the weather in Connecticut right now: the pewter skies, the endless barrage of snow, the unplowed sidewalks, the grimace of one’s face after being hit with an icy gust of wind, the shaking trees, the darkness, the emptiness. In the canon of Mount Eerie releases, it stacks up to other current releases, but does not reach the heights that albums like Wind’s Poem or Lost Wisdom achieve. However, it is a great album that offers a starting point for an expansive catalog of truly unique music.
Trevor Morrison is the Music Director at WHUS and goes by DJ Expensive Haircut on the airwaves. You can catch his show “An Empty Bliss” on Monday nights, 10pm-12am.