Mount Eerie - Sauna - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Mount Eerie - Sauna

by Rich Morris Rating:7 Release Date:2015-02-11

Recorded in a reclaimed church in Washington on a 24-track analogue unit by Phil Elverum, this spectral, determinedly lo-fi work joins dots between several disparate artists and sounds. There’s the stream-of-consciousness, surreal folk storytelling of Richard Dawson; the bumble-fuck indie of early Pavement; the drones and quasi-religiosity of Godspeed You! Black Emperor; early Floyd psych-doom; Zammuto’s fragile electronica; the wispy R&B of the recently exhumed and revered Lewis; Steve Reich minimalism. The potential influences just keep piling up, most bubbling to the surface for a few minutes before disappearing into the hissy murk.

As you can probably tell, there are quite a few shifts in style between songs. It’s fantastic to encounter an artist who’s confident and adventurous enough to hop from one genre to another and it means that while some tracks might fall flat, others really take off.

Which ones work for you will depend on what you like. Personally, I much prefer the more experimental moments, such as the 10 minutes of organ drone and ghostly female coos which make up the opening title track, or ‘(something)’s polyphonic minimalism. You might prefer the tempestuous, Radio Dept-style indie-rock of ‘Boat’, or ‘Planets’ ultra-lo-fi soul-meets-prog sound. Overall, it’s mostly great stuff.

However, one thing which really lets the whole record down is Elverum’s unvaryingly weedy vocal. At its best, as on ‘Turmoil’ and ‘Pumpkin’, his voice has a flat, matter-of-fact quality which suits the dairy-entry lyrics and, like Dawson’s Nothing Important, highlights the surreality of apparently mundane images and occurrences.

At its worst, which is far too frequent, there’s an irritating ‘poor me’ limpness in his tone which, when coupled with the flaky fidelity of the sound, conspires to make it sound like Elverum isn’t putting in much effort, when blatantly he is. Each song here, no matter how slapdash the finished result may appear, has clearly been crafted and arranged with real care.

Unfortunately, this one flaw results in Elverum often being by far the least interesting element in his songs, which means that the album is most enjoyable during its purely instrumental periods, such as on the frankly stunning opening passage of the 13-minute ‘Spring’, which combines prog grandstanding, atonal guitar histrionics, and Ryuichi Sakamoto-style synth moodiness.

What’s more, it sounds like each contrasting style has been punched haphazardly over the other, like an old cassette reused to tape stuff off the radio. When it finally resolves itself into a claustrophobic hellscape of rumbling organ and chanted choral vocals, it’s no less extraordinary. After what feels like a nightmarish eternity, this is followed by the breezy, quasi-classical prepared piano of ‘Books’, which in turn abruptly switches to dense guitar strumming and folk harmonies.

Sauna is far from perfect. There are a few too many dreary, miserablist moments. But it is at least rarely less than unusual, and it never drags for long. Only Elverum’s feeble vocal lets things down, and I’m not sure if even that is done on purpose since he’s often so low in the mix. Mostly, Sauna is pretentious in just the right way. 

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