It’s clear these are different Mountains. These Mountains ruminate. These Mountains give space a chance. These Mountains breathe deeply. These Mountains drive composition with melody, with pace, with foresight. These Mountains barely resemble themselves.
Not to say the duo of Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg have previously failed to achieve. The Brooklyn electronic-ambient experimentalists have found plenty of success gradually, manipulating acoustic instrumentation through broad synth strokes and painting over huge ribbons of drift with prickling electronics. Their last effort, 2011’s Air Museum, stacked and peeled layers of polyrhythms and arpeggios with almost ceaseless sleight-of-hand. It was an expressionist synthesis that tentatively felt over-exuberant, rarely paring down.
In contrast, Centralia is controlled. I’m still not certain you can call Mountains songwriters, but they sound more deliberate than ever across these seven tracks that total just over an hour. The textures are richer and the sentiments more realized. The emotional through-line hits more directly, particularly because the songs are more thoughtfully composed than any of Mountains’ previous. What’s more, Mountains now use acoustic instruments like guitars and pianos and strings without processing, and sometimes leave them totally unaccompanied.
This new approach becomes apparent in the final minutes of opener “Sand”. The electronic swaths fall away and the track lays bare to a single bowed note. Soon, a chorus of cellos yawn a major chord over it. Just before the last of “Sand” passes, what sounds like a single piano note high in the register strikes again and again. It’s heavy-handed, honorific to Stars of the Lid, and an astounding opening statement.
The subtleties across the album are in part what makes it so effective: The rhythmic vertigo of the opening guitar line or the requisite blustery-day field recordings on “Tilt”; the brushed percussion and Music For Airports-echoing piano riff on “Circular C”; the burbling synth voice in a few spots that, until now, seemed trademarked by Oneohtrix Point Never; the familiar android cricket cloud that flashes briefly on “Identical Ship”.
So yes, Centralia culls from a broader palette than Mountain’s previous work. But overall, the duo returns to ideas from 2007’s Mountains Mountains Mountains, specifically that acoustic plucking can be as effective as monster electric guitar chords, or that subtle glitch elements can totally reshape a track — there’s as much Alva Noto embedded here as there is Ben Chasny.
The album’s sprawling 20-minute centerpiece, “Propeller”, best exemplifies how deliberate Mountains have become without totally forgoing their history. The introduction pulses with split-stereo organ tremolos before calculated guitar harmonics rise in the back. Five minutes in, a nasty filter swells from nowhere, but somehow phases out before an almost invisible guitar riff introduces an elaborate key change. About halfway through, the swell and churn of timbres becomes so intense that it feels restrictive in the chest. I would call this claustrophobic if it weren’t so deft — it doesn’t overwhelm, it elevates. The final two minutes of “Propeller” almost terrify, with the repetition of an industrial ocean wave, crashing over and over like sheet metal slapped to concrete. It passes like a six-minute track.
It’s the paradox of natural forces replicated through industrial means that characterizes why Mountains are sublime. In the dead of winter in the city, wrapped in a quilt my Nana sewed, when I miss the snowcaps of the Rockies and the Bitterroots and the Cascades, Centralia manages to bare a koan about how tectonic shifts can inspire, even when I’m thousands of miles removed. Mountains is a simple name for a band. But it’s also an utterly mysterious one that stretches implications across eons. In the right setting, Centralia just feels that deep and rich.
Essential Tracks: “Sand”, “Propeller”