Over the past two decades, Phil Elverum has established himself as one of the most consistently outstanding artists working in the indie rock spectrum, yet I could almost be convinced that he purposely tries to slip under the radar at every opportunity. 2001’s The Glow Pt. 2, recorded under the guise of The Microphones, positioned the singer and multi-instrumentalist as a Beck-like figure comfortably making virtually any kind of music imaginable from experimental, ambient soundscapes to loud and noisy punk rock to gentle acoustic ballads. In the years since however, Elverum (recording as Mount Eerie) has produced a string of almost deliberately inconspicuous albums that explore existentialist themes almost unceasingly.
2015’s Sauna continues Phil Elverum’s examination of, well, Phil Elverum, expertly combining musical elements with sections of ambient sound to create a mesmerizing work of genuine sound art. Eclectic to the extreme, the album has a stream of consciousness sort of flow to it that’s established early on in the lengthy opening title track. Appropriately, “Sauna” (the song and the album) starts with the sound of a person drawing a deep breath as if preparing for a long, possibly harrowing journey or period of exertion, and the piece goes on to feature the sound of a crackling fireplace heard over droning organ chords and swooshing sound effects. This meditative and relaxing intro effortlessly creates a sense of wonderment that’s eventually interrupted by grinding, metallic groans which hint at an impending eruption of sound that never quite materializes. Elverum’s breathy, childlike vocals emerge from the murk around the halfway point of the ten-minute track, almost seeming at odds with the ominous sonic backdrop. As the singer declares “I don’t think this world still exists,” wailing female vocals swell underneath and the song gets progressively louder until an abrupt ending that seems the result of the stop button on a tape deck being pressed.
Throbbing, distorted guitars, hollow, echoed vocals and a lazy drumbeat give the brief “Turmoil” similarities toJeff Mangum’s brand of folk-punk. Elverum admits in his lyrics that he “can’t remember when and if [he] woke up,” which helps to explain the hallucinogenic, dream-like quality of this – and many other songs on the album. Third track “Dragon” is a quiet and delicate number built around a wispy guitar strum and an angelic choir of female voices. The titular entity may as well be represented by the omnipresent – and sometimes quite loud – sound of an airplane which intrudes into the track. Somehow, this incidental noise fits and even adds to the ethereal quality of the piece, becoming a focal element by the time Elverum joins in with a spoke-sung stanza. “Emptiness” is one of the the album’s strongest and most distinctive cuts: slithering, prog-like bass patterns, gurgling organ, and rolling cymbals related a feeling of uneasiness and maybe even fear. Complimenting the sinister mood is a vocal part that presents an overload of dark imagery – I’ve always been impressed with Elverum’s abilities as a wordsmith, and he proves here that he hasn’t lost his touch.
Repeating mallet percussion loops in the kinetic “(something)” seem to indicate a process of gradual but inevitable change, the piece coming across as a pleasant diversion among more heavy-handed and heady compositions, and the scratchy but irresistible “Boat” is the album’s obligatory head-banging tune. Awash in crashing cymbals and screeching guitar, this tune (similar to Glow Pt. 2’s “I Want to Be Cold”) make one wonder what a straight-up punk or heavy metal group fronted by Elverum would sound like. Existential and self-reflective lyrical themes that have been a hallmark of the Mount Eerie project since its inception appear in the relaxed “Planets” (“as long as I’m still drawing breath, the world still exists” - a line that connects back to the album’s opening track) while the slow and steady “Pumpkin” examines notions of disillusionment and detachment, with some quintessentially idiosyncratic Elverum observations (“looking at garbage, pretending the wind speaks, finding meaning in songs, but the wind through the graves is just wind”).
Clanging bells signal the start of expansive ninth track “Spring,” but grating, rumbling guitar noise and menacing background ambiance quickly dashes any sense of hope suggested by the title. Discordant celestial vocals only emphasize the disquieting mood but a subsequent section of plunking bass and distant percussion accents not only provides some semblance of forward momentum but is comparatively warm and pleasant in tone. Still, “Spring”’s final few minutes head back into more disconcerting territory, leaving the listener with a sense of heaviness and dread. Pizzicato strings, percussive piano and relentlessly pounding drum sets the stage for the invigorating “Books,” but the track (which recalls the chamber pop of the criminally under-appreciated Rachel's) ends with a perplexing, tantalizing fragment of a more unsettling and brooding, vocal-driven song before penultimate track “This” discharges alternately fluttering and flowing vocal and instrumental parts. Initially quite soft and folk-like, finale “Youth” builds to an eruption of cacophonous noise before settling into a relaxed, throbbing verse pushed along by a clopping rhythm, sending the album out with one of its most memorable grooves.
In the middle of “Planets,” Mount Eerie’s singer/songwriter declares that “I don’t know you and you never will know me from inside my bubble.” More and more, the message of Mount Eerie music seems to be that no one other than Phil Elverum will ever truly understand Phil Elverum - the abrupt endings of many of Sauna’s songs suggest that the listener is only getting a glimpse of a much bigger work or idea, let alone a full portrait of the artist who created it. Per usual, with this album Elverum seems to be challenging ideas of what an album is or should be: the many ambient soundscapes present here emphasize the fact that Sauna is more about the way it makes a listener feel than about its occasional song-like moments. It’s very likely then that this album will present an entirely different experience for every individual listener, but there’s no denying the fact that it’s a remarkable, exquisitely produced and endlessly imaginative work. Perhaps not as instantly jaw-dropping (and, for that matter, accessible) as The Glow Pt. 2, Sauna nonetheless has to be counted among the year’s best.
8.7 / 10
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