Review: The Mercury Tree – Countenance

I had the pleasure of being introduced to The Mercury Tree at Progtoberfest this past year. This Portland band was easily one of the most interesting and modern sounding bands on the bill. They are far from being just another prog band, as they incorporate influences from math rock, jazz, alternative rock, and more. All of this is evident on their latest record, Countenance, which displays an enormous stylistic range (and a huge progression from their previous records, which did not include many of these elements). If you’re a fan of bands like The Mars Volta, Tera Melos, Tool, and King Crimson, then give this record a listen.

The band is led by singer/guitarist/keyboardist Ben Spees, who is quite a joy to watch live due to his multitasking. Spees has a very soothing voice that’s incredibly enjoyable to listen to – imagine a more earnest and modern sounding Jakko Jakszyk. As a keyboardist, he favors Rhodes electric piano, which he processes in interesting ways throughout. Connor Reilly’s drumming is tight and interesting, and his drum tones are fantastic. The band was between bassists on this album, so the bass duties are evenly split between old bassist Aaron Clark and new bassist Oliver Campbell. Clark plays fretless bass on 5 songs (including 2 math-jazz instrumentals) in addition to performing lead vocals on the vaguely eastern-sounding acoustic ballad ‘The Ellsberg Cycle’. Both bassists provide sung harmonies and the occasional screamed vocal to provide a strong counterpoint to the placid leads.

Album opener ‘Pitchless Tone’ features a hooky chorus that wouldn’t feel out of place in an early 2000s Tool-inspired alternative rock band – a feel solidified by the song’s use of odd time signatures and vocal harmonies – but all with a ’70s prog underpinning. The second song, ‘Vestigial’, introduces a number of new elements to the mix. The intro features acoustic guitar harmonics and microtonal keyboard loops (Spees programmed his keyboard to switch between a 24-pitch division of the scale and the traditional 12 tones) on top of 2 acoustic guitar layers playing a harmonized line. In the verses, the vocals and lead guitar playing a melody in unison and feature extensive use of mixed meter. We’re soon treated to a whistling interlude and a heavy screamed chorus. Each of these elements give the music a little extra flavor, but none of them ever dominate the sound – the songs always remain highly melodic, striking a nice balance between experimentalism and accessibility.

One of the the first things you may notice about this record is that the music is heavily layered, making the band sound incredibly big and full for a trio. Most of these layers are not overdubs – instead, Spees extensively uses a looping pedal, and is able to replicate almost every detail live with only 3 players. The third song, ‘Otoliths’, takes full advantage of this arrangement and demonstrates how Spees is able to act as the band’s keyboardist and guitarist simultaneously. It is an 11 minute epic which showcases the full range of the band’s sound. It starts off as a major key ballad. Spees plays a 6/8 guitar loop, then switches over to the Rhodes to play in 4/4 with the rest of the band while the 6/8 loop polymetrically cycles against them. After two verses and two choruses, we are treated to an instrumental transition which builds in intensity, adding a new looped layer with every repetition. The 6/8 clean guitar loop quickly vanishes and distorted guitars take over as the song shifts into a heavy math rock section with screamed lead vocals, effortlessly shifting from the mellowest music on the album thus far to the most energetic.

The heaviness eventually gives way to a mellow interlude featuring a microtonal Rhodes solo, and traverses many more sections and contrasts before eventually ending up at a louder reprise of the first section’s mellow chorus. The song takes you for quite a ride, and while it often seems unclear how some of the sections are related to each other (as is common in prog epics of this length), everything is perfectly paced and flows very well, and the strong contrasts are very effective. These frequent contrasts, genre shifts and winding structures make the music highly unpredictable. For example, the song ‘Artifracture’ begins as an uptempo major key rock song which soon descends into downtuned metal riffing, dissonant vocal harmonies and screaming. It quickly returns to the major key music from the start, but with a greater sense of unease.

The production on Countenance is excellent. Ben Spees also mixed the album, and he did a stellar job – all of the tones are very organic and just clean enough. The sound throughout is warm and feels very live – nothing sounds overedited, overprocessed or sterile, and the mix has a great deal of clarity and character. This aesthetic is sorely lacking in a lot of new music today, and the band gets it just right here. But don’t take my word for it – give the album a listen and see what you think!

On January 25 2015, this entry was posted.