You Should Already Know: Mercury Rev

A trip down Mercury Rev’s memory lane proves to be an uneven romp. The band kicked off the late ’80s as an avant-garde film soundtracker and featured a larger cast than the current line-up of singer/guitarist Jonathan Donahue, guitarist Sean Mackowiak and drummer Jeff Mercel. During that time, Mercury Rev concocted unclassifiable explorations like Yerself is Steam, Boces, and See You on the Other Side, while also nearly killing each other and effectually getting booted from Lollapalooza for playing too loud.

The insurmountable group tension eventually took its toll, and Mercury Rev ultimately fragmented in the mid ’90s. After the fall, bassist Dave Fridmann went on to become a lights-out producer for Flaming Lips, Sleater-Kinney and others, while the core trio cashed in by releasing the highly acclaimed Deserter’s Songs in 1998. Followed by All is Dream, the group then set out to unleash The Secret Migration and an unheralded film score entitled Hello Blackbird. In the end, the band had cinematically come full circle. “I wouldn’t disagree with that,” explains Mercel. “In a way, working on Blackbird inspired both of the new records.”

Jeff Mercel is not just talking about Rev’s new main effort, Snowflake Midnight, but a companion album called Strange Attractor, which is being released as a free download on the band’s website. Taken together, the two albums sound like the soundtrack to an art-house fantasy with epic pieces that push and pull in Newtonian splendor, but avoid anything resembling conventional structure. They could easily fit into the film oeuvre of Darren Aronofsky or Stanley Kubrick, who also happen to be on the band’s wish list of directors they’d love to write music for—even though working with the latter would be impossible.

Kubrick always nailed it,” says Mercel. “He had a strong grasp on how music should play in film…same with Paul Thomas Anderson. When I was watching There Will Be Blood, all I could think about was 2001.”

The changes, according to Mercel, have done Mercury Rev good. The band reverse-engineered its approach, jamming on motifs for hours to let the music take shape organically. High irony, considering the trio used every piece of inorganic equipment available to man.

“Our second studio looked like the bridge of a spaceship,” Mercel laughs. “We just had this feeling that the process needed to change, like a scientific experiment needs to change to yield different results. We moved out of our first studio, removed our safety nets and decided in favor of more electronic, ambient sounds. They exist in our earlier work, but now they dominate. And there was a great deal of post-production work. We’d put hours of music down and then sit at Pro Tools and start hacking.”

The leap to a free download made digital sense as well, especially given the material fees for a double-disc offering. “We had more material than normal,” Mercel concludes, “but a double album doesn’t always have positive connotations. Plus, once you put two discs into a package, everyone chimes in and by the time it’s over, someone walks into a store and sees a Mercury Rev release priced at $24.99. You don’t want anyone to be scared off by a price tag.” F

This article appeared at FIlter

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