October 5, 2008

A play in three acts [Mercury Rev]

"Much more of a trip rather than band"

In coordination with their recent performance at the Stone, Mercury Rev released their new album, Snowflake Midnight, this past week.  Saccharine title aside, this is officially Mercury Rev's third phase in a long and winding career. A breakdown of the group's three acts:

Act I: Volatile Beginnings
Yerself is Steam (1991)
Boces (1993)
See You on the Other Side (1995)

Predominantly centered around former frontman Dave Baker and his volatile personality, the first two Mercury Rev albums were characterized by noisy psych-rock that was tumultous though pierced with moments of absolute beauty.  Structurally, these albums were more experimental and jam-oriented, and compositions could either wind on and on with extensive solos and sonic freakouts or be short bursts of sound.  Standout tracks include "Chasing a Bee" (Yerself is Steam) and "Something for Joey" (Boces), which was complemented by a video featuring infamous porn star Ron Jeremy.

Mercury Rev - Chasing a Bee [Yerself is Steam LP, 1991]

Mercury Rev - Something for Joey [Boces LP, 1993]

Act II: Reinvention Leading to Stagnation
Deserter's Songs (1998)
All is Dream (2001)
Secret Migration (2005)

Searching to reinvent themselves after See You on the Other Side, the Rev began channeling their psychedelic leanings from Act I into more concise, song-oriented albums, starting with 1998's Deserter's Songs, arguably the group's best output, to date.  Coupling standard instrumentation with more rare instruments such as theremins, bowed saws and mellotrons, the album had the distinction of being routed in traditional americana while having a more whimsical and dreamlike feel.  All is Dream continued this newfound sound, though was more widescreen and cinematic, as exemplified by epic tracks like the "Dark is Rising" and "Me and Hercules".  Unfortunately, Mercury Rev had exhausted this dream-pop sound by the time Secret Migration was released, which proved to be the group at its most saccharine and, strangely, adult alternative.  Consequently, this is the group's worst album, to date.  

Mercury Rev - Opus 40[Deserter's Songs LP, 1998]

Mercury Rev - The Dark is Rising[All is Dream LP, 2001]

Act III: New Sonic Discoveries 
Snowflake Midnight (2008)
Strange Attractor (2008)

Released simultaneously, Snowflake Midnight and the purely-instrumental Strange Attractor represents the group's new direction, which is more focused on electronics and far less structured than the Rev's previous three albums.  In a way, this Act is promising in that it takes the jam-oriented and more structureless works of Act I while borrowing from Act II's more dream-pop approach.  It remains to be seen how this Act plays out, but it sounds promising.  In any event, the Rev are no strangers to change, and their ability to evolve on a dime is the greatest compliment a band can receive.  Cheers to one of America's finest rock groups to emerge in the last two decades.

Mercury Rev - Senses on Fire[Snowflake Midnight LP, 2008]

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