Subtlety at a High Level
Instrumental duo Mountains, made up of Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp, are escalating again out of the morning Brooklyn haze after 2011’s Air Museum , and have returned with their fourth long player, Centralia. It is a carefully paced album—which, mind you, is an underrated skill to have in the ambient genre these days—and manages to attain a nice balance between the lofting textures of the longer tracks, and the modest, yearning patterns of the pieces that intermix acoustic and electronic textures.
However, if talking in terms of aural–emotive effectiveness, the lusher compositions win over the more minimalistically arranged ones at nearly every turn. For example, opener “Sand” rides one synthesizer wash after another for most of its 11 minutes. It’s not a bad track, and has its own sense of tension and narrative. However, when it is placed against something like “Circular C,” with its clockwork-style acoustic guitar patterns swirling over the top of these washes, a different edge is brought to the core of the latter that is not available on the former.
By giving the listener more to gravitate to, Centralia sticks out from others in its ambient ilk. This is a good thing of course, as certain stretches of the album reveal not only a higher degree of quality in the duo’s skeletal composition and production, but also in the muscle and tendon of their musicianship. The unconscious and repeating nature of the music is always going to be at the forefront as ambient’s calling card, but by using these moments of hypnotic engagement to flex a little musical depth, the overall listening experience becomes a far better one. “Tilt” is another good example that uses trimmings of the genre, but imbues a completely unique flavor that entices the listener’s attention a little bit more than usual. Check the eastern-tinged guitar figure at its core, and how it serves as an example of the simple attentions a nuanced composing ear can yield for this pleasantly wobbling track.
“Liana” is another nicely conceived piece that introduces spiraling synthesizer work straight out of the early 1980s. And though it initially comes off sounding more like a solo experimental–improvisational piece, it is all the while secretly building up to a shattering crescendo of distorted guitar chords that would likely make Brian May proud. One would think stuff like that is terra incognita for any self-respecting ambient album, but it is a highly enjoyable stroke of showmanship and tension relief for the falling action of the album’s narrative.
Perhaps Mountain’s most effective record yet, this duo continues to reach further than its grasp, and comes across with an interesting and moody record that seems highly unapologetic about its ambition. Plus, though nothing here could be said to be breaking the mold in any apparent way, the mere fact the two musicians at play are making the most effective use of the tools at their disposal makes for a convincing enough effort in this regard.