The Mercury Tree – Permutations

The Mercury Tree is one of the rare bands that has managed to constantly grow and improve with every record they put out. On their fifth record, Permutations, they are barely recognizable as the same band that created their radio-friendly alt-rock debut nearly a decade earlier. Permutations is an extremely dense and challenging listen that demands and rewards multiple listens; it is one of the rare records which combines technicality and innovation with a strong emotional core.

Bandleader Ben Spees has been the only constant throughout the band’s discography, and he manages to be the lead vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist simultaneously through extensive use of looping pedals. Spees is joined here by drummer Connor Reilly, who first appeared on the band’s 2nd record, Pterodactyls (2012), and bassist/vocalist Oliver Campbell, who first appeared on half of their previous record, Countenance (2014 – see my review here).

Just about everything that made that Countenance great has been improved upon in Permutations. Every song on Permutations has a dense structure with a clear trajectory – not one of them ends where it began, but they all flow logically and feel like a unified whole. Countenance had a single 11-minute epic, ‘Otoliths’, which felt like a well-assembled suite of (often seemingly unrelated) song segments. The epic-length tracks on Permutations have complex structures that are often much harder to follow, but feel more like a singular thought despite constant changes in dynamics, texture, and harmonic language. The music is more adventurous, but also better executed. The microtonal explorations that first appeared on Countenance in the form of quarter-tone keyboards are taken much further here – more tuning systems are used, and microtones also appear in the guitars. The lyrics center around bitterness towards illogical and frustrating viewpoints, and work in tandem with the music to paint a picture of a confusing and endlessly complicated modern world filled with out-of-touch people who can’t begin to grasp it.

Opening track ‘Symptoms’ shows off the best of what the album has to offer – it’s utterly frantic, intensely emotional, and probably close to unplayable. The song’s unsettling intro features a mostly octatonic piano trading off with microtonal keyboard lines, all superimposed over swelled guitar loops. Strangely phrased octatonic vocal lines dripping with delay effects are sung in a ghostly head voice over chaotic tuplet riffs, creating a deeply eerie atmosphere through the whole first half of the song. The mood of the song gets more uplifting by the end, but the unsettled anxiety never goes away – a move which is perfectly mirrored by the song’s lyrics.

‘Exhume the Worst’ comes the closest to the band’s alt-rock roots, sounding somewhat reminiscent of Tool-inspired alt-prog groups like Karnivool and Soen – but this is alt-prog on steroids, without a hint of the blandness that often saturates the genre. It’s one of the few songs here that follows a loose pop structure, but the thick atmosphere, quietly mixed singing with screamed backing vocals, pedal effects, disorienting rhythms, and a microtonal interlude all make the song a truly unique take on the genre.

All the stops are pulled out for the nearly 11-minute title track, which takes the album into truly strange territory. ‘Permutations’ opens with languid quarter-tone guitars that soon give way to King Crimson-esque interlocking whole tone and octatonic guitar and keyboard lines, eventually building to a hilariously insane climax and a mellow but menacing coda. The deranged feeling this track provides is taken even further on ‘Ether/Ore’, the final song written for the record and its most experimental cut. Polymetric double drums (playing 4/4 in the left channel and 5/4 in the right channel), electronic loops, keyboards in Wendy Carlos’s ‘Alpha’ tuning, saxophone, and vocal fry collapse into bursts of noise.  If you’re not already terrified, the sudden tempo change will probably give you a sudden increase in heart rate.

Permutations may not get any stranger than ‘Ether/Ore’, but every remaining song has something new to offer. ‘Placeholder’ is a spacey ballad written and sung by bassist Oliver Campbell, finally providing a break from the aural chaos. Campbell sings bitter lyrics in a numb, detached manner, leaving the listener floating in space until he finally manages to muster the energy to address the hurt head on in the song’s climax. ‘Unintelligible’ features numerous sudden shifts in mood and dynamic, from soaring melodies to staccato riffing with stuttering yelled vocals, all ending with a disorienting tempo decrease. ‘Sympathesizer’ keeps that tempo play going, as it changes tempos through its entire duration while still managing to be the album’s most accessible track!

The one element of the record that I wouldn’t call an improvement over Countenance is the mix – apparently the band had very little time to mix this extremely dense and complex record, and that shows in the distorted guitar sounds. The mix turns muddy every time the distortion is turned on and some of the layers, loops and vocals become obscured. Thankfully, distorted guitars are used sparingly on this record, and most of it is dominated by shimmering clean tones and an organic production aesthetic which captures the feel of a live band.

It may be easiest to start digesting this album in smaller chunks, as the 66-minute duration and density may cause many listeners to run out of focused listening energy before reaching the end. It felt rather front-loaded on my first few listens, as the most immediate material is placed right at the start and the strangest material all appears in its first half. But this isn’t just their longest record – it’s also their darkest and most inspired. Every song on this album is worth your time. Do yourself a favor and listen to the entire thing multiple times – this is a truly progressive record with a high level of both innovation and quality, and records like that don’t come along often.

Technical information

Artist: The Mercury Tree
Album: Permutations
Release date: 2016/03/30
Label: independent

Track list
1. Symptoms – 6:59
2. Exhume the Worst – 4:56
3. Permutations – 10:42
4. Ether / Ore – 4:08
5. Placeholder – 4:32
6. Unintelligible – 5:06
7. Sympathesizer – 4:42
8. Seek And Release – 5:46
9. Prometheist – 9:00
10. Deep Five – 10:32
Total running time 66:23

File type listened: MP3
Bit rate: 320 kbps VBR
Sampling frequency: 44,100 Hz, 2 channels

Ben Spees: guitar, keyboard, voice
Connor Reilly: drums
Oliver Campbell: bass, voice
special guests:
Aaron Clark*: space guitar (7, 10)
Tony Mowe: alto and baritone saxophone (4, 7)

Recorded 2015-2016
College of Wizardry & Bongo Fury, Portland, Oregon

Mixed by Ben Spees
Mastered by Stephan Hawkes

*Aaron Clark is the band’s previous bassist, featured on the band’s 3rd record, Freeze in Phantom Form (2012) and half of Countenance.