The thing about minimalist music is that there is rather a lot of it. There are many people out there making ambient drone compositions – but I found myself thinking during an excellent recent Stephan Mathieu performance in this same venue that there are few who do it terribly well live. It is one thing to do it in the studio, but to get this sort of thing right in a live performance, and to make something that is actually interesting, can require a high level of precision, finely-tuned reactions, and a really good ear. This setting actually seems to suit the Brooklyn-based duo Mountains particularly well – it is in their semi-improvised live performances that they work up ideas, sounds and textures that will eventually turn up on albums – albums, which, until recently, have been recorded live. I thus had high hopes for their first appearance at Cafe Oto, where they were joined by Simon Scott and John Chantler.
With every passing year, the fact that Simon Scott was once the drummer for Slowdive becomes an increasingly distant memory. His solo works are beatless, experimental creations, dwelling on dark themes: his debut album for Miasmah was inspired by his grandfather’s career as a submarine officer, and the oppressive, claustrophobic qualities of the record hinted at the effects sustained imprisonment in the depths would have on the mind. Here, he was to return to a watery theme, making use of field recordings seemingly made by the water’s edge: the lapping of waves, the chirping of coots. To this he added guitar, which dispersed like gentle ripples on the surface, becoming increasingly diffuse. As it went on, we seemed to leave the shore further and further behind, the sound becoming darker and deeper, fed through pedals until it eventually became horribly distorted. It grated and grinded industrially, like a ship engine lacking in oil; just when it seemed like it was about to overheat it resolved itself and we returned back to shallow waters. The musical coda which followed felt unnecessary, even confusing – after having been on what felt like a geographically specific journey, I found myself thinking “so, where am I now?”. And not finding the answer.
If John Chantler’s live setup was any more complex, it would surely be sentient. In fact, he had to apologise for the fact that it would probably look like he wasn’t actually doing very much work on stage: all his effort had gone into creating the intricate patchwork of cables connecting the modules of his synthesizer together. Once underway, this was “automatic music”, a chain reaction of electronic sounds. It started slowly, strangled even, as if the sheer length of cable meant that getting music from it was like drinking through a mile-long straw. You could sense the pressure building, forcing it through, and from a low bass hum came the first few spits of sound, an abstract arrangement of bleeps and squeals, which gradually found form, coalescing and pulsing. However he had more than just that box of spaghetti up there. He started to spool in sound from tapes, a grainy, fractured guitar noise, and the set built in intensity until it was like Tim Hecker at his most epic, but with that unpredictable undercurrent still being created beneath. At the end, I didn’t know whether to applaud John or the synth.
The new Mountains record Air Museum is actually their first proper studio album, and it is a very different sounding piece of work as a result – in the sense that they seem to have thought of these more as stand-alone compositions, introduced more melody and even rhythm, and considered the individual sounds rather than the mix. Synthesizers dominate, giving it a much more sparse and kosmische feel than their previous albums at times. I don’t enjoy it in the same way as I do their live sets, in which the synth is used more texturally – more early Popol Vuh rather than Kraftwerk, say. Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg seemed to take it in turns to gradually add layers to the mix – synth, guitar, vocal drone, acoustic guitar, synth, a similar sound palette to Emeralds, but without their more structured rock/pop sensibility. There was no need to rush to a crescendo, they were happy to guide the piece into shape over the course of 45 minutes. It became richer and more immersive as it went on, you could only just pick out the individual elements buried deep in the mix, from the waves of guitar to electronic vibrations. Gradually they stripped it back to leave just Anderegg on guitar, playing unaccompanied into a room full of people with their eyes closed, just listening. Another thing about minimalist music is that there can be a lot to listen to.