Throughout history, beauty has been a very difficult thing to describe adequately. That difficulty has been the inspiration for most great poetic and musical work, and the reason why there is so much vacuous, immature work out there too. To come to an understanding of – and representation of – a genuine form of beauty is not something just anyone can do and we remember those who managed to do it well, from Wordsworth to Joni Mitchell. The duo of Brendon Anderegg and Koel Hotlkamp, otherwise known as Mountains, are unlikely to be remembered in the same way as the those figures but they certainly have a keen grasp of how to create and sustain awesome beauty.
When the cellos appear a few minutes from the end of ‘Sand‘, the opening track on Centralia, their warm, tenuous presence imbues the track with an unexpected light, cleansing in its purity. They come after nine minutes of lovely, meandering synth work, a sustained note blooming into the most melancholic of chords. It marks the first spectacular moment on an album of many, proving that Mountains’ light sounds never come at the expense of their compositional nuance.
The most intense example of this subtle build-and-release strategy is to be found on ‘Propeller‘, the album’s 20-minute centre-piece. It opens in a similar way to ‘Sand’, a fluttering synth base with clean tones hinting at melodies over the top. It floats lightly for about ten minutes before a new sound appears, incredibly rich in the ears, and a new bass pattern marks out a second stage, a new level. You need the ten minute opening to really feel the change, you have to be neck deep in the sound before the shift can really hit. When it does hit, it can feel like the whole world has upended and everything is different. Subtle but devastating and the high-point of the whole album. You suddenly get why the song is called ‘Propeller’.
And you also get why the album is called Centralia. Centralia is a real-life ghost-town in Columbus County, Pennsylvania, USA, where a fire in an underground mine has raged for over 40 years. The town still looks relatively normal from a distance, even though only 10 people live there. Underneath the streets and gardens is where you’ll find the fire, burning through the earth and sometimes spilling out of its subterranean confines to open tiny hellmouths on the surface of the world. “The ground is prone to collapse” says a warning sign in the town.
Mountain’s blissful surface tones belie carefully constructed arrangements that can be incredibly powerful when let off the leash, when they become too complex to control. Look no further than the entry of the guitars on ‘Liana‘, a disruption so perfect and epic that you barely notice the way it shifts the whole balance of the track until you’re already deep within its maw. Peace meets violence on an almost subconscious level, blending two worlds, two impulses, together. It’s a beautiful world Mountains have created, truly beautiful because it includes shadow and dynamics, it is detailed and complex without ever being pompous or distant. Centralia is a work of masterful craft and real insight, a ‘Living Lens’, as they put it themselves.