With Centralia, the duo of Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg may have crafted their strongest and most imaginative work to date. This is music that focuses strongly on integration and common ground – particularly that fertile space found when acoustic instruments and electronic sounds are combined. Typically for Mountains, it is also a patient and graceful affair, their layered textures and graceful crescendos building in a slow and stately manner.
If the title suggested a fictional country, it would be apposite. Holtkamp and Anderegg have mapped their own territory here, developing their bold aesthetic in continually engaging ways and without any sense of compromise. Yet there is a real Centralia – a largely deserted town in Pennsylvania. Centralia is a brilliantly escapist work and a collection of music that has to be inhabited fully. It feels wide and expansive, but also desolate and isolated.
There is always a risk that this sort of quasi-ambient drone music can be manipulative. It inevitably draws the listener in with its mesmeric qualities. Mountains are a little different. Their music explores texture and sound in nuanced and fascinating ways. The opening Sand is illustrative of their approach – an intricate lattice of sounds and ideas that initially feels listless before demonstrating subtle signs of life. Its ebb and flow is what gives it its power and sense of emotional involvement. The limited melodic and harmonic palette may briefly create a false sense of security but, suddenly and without warning, a change in sound world will usher in a wholly different mood, even if a single note remains sustained throughout that process. This approach is both economical and extremely satisfying.
Centalia is also carefully structured, alternating its long pieces with shorter, more allusive works. It feels like Mountains’ most orchestrated and composed work so far – still and tranquil where necessary but also averse to stasis. It seems delineated in order to incorporate a wider range of instrumentation and a variety of attack whilst sustaining a consistent and involving atmosphere. Whilst Circular C continues the carefully established tone of preceding track Identical Ship, it also adds lingering, insistent piano chords to the drifting, meandering guitar work. This is Mountains at their most stoical and unyielding.
The acoustic guitar has a strong presence throughout much of Centralia, and there is a sense that the duo may have absorbed some of the Takoma school of guitar playing that has also influenced the likes of James Blackshaw and William Tyler. Tilt, particularly, begins with a circular, meditative quality, far from the intensity and turbulence of the Scott Walker album with which it shares a title. It then expands into a gently propulsive near dance.
Much of the music here requires a rigour, patience and discipline from both the listener and the musicians responsible, not least on the demanding twenty minute centrepiece Propeller. This is a live recording later embellished and developed in the studio, and it is both this album’s most uncompromising moment at its greatest triumph. It is best appreciated with headphones, its phased, pulsating synth sounds creating disorientating effects. This method of listening also reveals the myriad delicate details in Mountains’ deceptive serenity. Propeller ends in a manner that is far from peaceful – recognisable musical elements subsiding leaving what might be gusting winds or powerful breaking waves. It’s a testament to the strength and authority of the whole album.