Markus Mehr – On
Posted In: Hidden Shoal Recordings, Markus Mehr, Markus Mehr - On, Matt Gilley
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Markus Mehr’s music is hard to pin down. It crosses through multiple genres, equally comfortable with industrial noise, lilting ambience and electronica-style sampling. On is also the second part in a triptych of albums (the previous one titled In, the next to be called Off) which, apart from their titles and artwork, have little obvious connection. Most pairs/triplets of albums would be expected to have some unified theme, a narrative connecting each instalment, but Mehr seems perfectly happy to leave this undefined, a puzzle to be solved by the listener or a space for them to fill for themselves. On pulls in the listener with its indefinability, taking enough twists to leave full comprehension just out of reach but without veering into obscurity.
The first curveball comes in the form of the very first track. “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” powers through its two minutes with the spiky rhythms of German electronic music (Mehr himself hails from the country) and the rattling abrasiveness of Merzbow. Perhaps the greatest surprise is that this isn’t even the most aggressive track on the album. That honour goes to “Olympia” with its similarly destructive beat, peppered by frenetic samples of what might be a silent movie score, cut to such miniscule length that they appear mostly as single bursts of noise rather than layered orchestration. An undercurrent of possible violence runs throughout the album, the threat of a sudden explosion of self-destruction. But apart from the two tracks already mentioned, it never manifests itself through anything more than some stuttered rhythms and distorted drones. The majority of On is in fact quite lovely. Lead ‘single’ “Flaming Youth” takes a loop of lounge music horns and turns it into the calming pleasantness that lounge music always intends to be but almost never is. The repetition is hypnotic and the static background lulls the mind into a fuzzed, isolated comfort.
Repetition is also key to the album’s centre-piece, “Duck Became Swan”, a piece that reveals a lot about Mehr as a musician, and perhaps about the theme of his triptych too. The title seems to refer to Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Ugly Duckling”, where an ‘ugly’ duckling overcomes its self-consciousness when it discovers that it is in fact a beautiful swan. Appropriately, the track begins with distorted noise and unnerving synth sweeps. Then a trumpet melody emerges which, apart from a segment in the middle, becomes the theme for the whole piece. This trumpet part takes on different moods, not because of any change in pitch or tempo, but purely from repetition. Initially it sounds like it heralds a triumphant rise to finale, but that doesn’t happen. Slowly the focus shifts to the last two notes and the steep drop between them, then the melody disappears. When it returns it continues for so long that it seems the only possibility is for it to drag itself out of the surrounding haze, to suddenly realise its true magnificence (like the ugly duckling alluded to in the title). There is no ecstatic finale, but by virtue of constancy the remaining string scrapes and buzzes of distortion are transformed into something surprisingly elegant. This exploration of the line between ugly and beautiful goes a long way towards unifying On and filling in the thematic uncertainty of Mehr’s album cycle. In some places Mehr juxtaposes the two, in others he uses sounds that immediately seem to be one to create a piece that turns out to be other. In also featured two long-form pieces, one smooth, one harsh, that shared many compositional similarities; what Off holds remains to be seen.
Mehr’s persistently unexpected uses of samples is another of the album’s strengths. Whether it’s the chants of “Monks on the Beach”, lightly pitch-shifted and mixed with an indistinct but animated speech sample, or the interjection of eastern melody into the middle of “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”, they add splashes of colour to an already well varied palette and Mehr is accomplished at twisting them to the purposes of his tracks rather than simply dropping them in wholesale. Their timing is chosen carefully, the slow solemnity of “Monks on the Beach” is welcome after the assault of “Olympia”; the sudden contrast is only in keeping with the rest of On.
Towards the end of the album another link with In appears. The thunderous chords and surging melody that close “Tunnels” echo those at the end of “Komo” (the first track of In). If this is any indication – and the statement that Off will include ‘the most epic piece yet’ suggests that it might be – then Mehr is heading for a rousing finale to his triptych. Hopefully he has the panache to pull it off.
- Matt Gilley for Fluid Radio