REVIEW: Secret Mountains - "Rainer"

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Secret Mountains
Record Label - Friends Records
Release Date - Feb. 26, 2013

Perhaps the most continually rewarding development in indie music over the past few years has been the maturation of the Baltimore music scene.  From acts like Beach House, Animal Collective, and Dan Deacon to more mid-level groups like Lower Dens and Wye Oak, there seems to be a willingness to experiment and push the boundaries that pervades the musical landscape of "Charm City."  The latest contender pushing their way into that crowded mob of established Baltimore acts is Secret Mountains, whose debut full-length, Rainer, premiered on Friends Records last month.  Running only 7 tracks, the album is a surprisingly dense listen with most tracks running over the six minute mark.  This is not your tired and true song structure -- Secret Mountains draw power from an enigmatic, complex musicality.

In many ways, you're going to hear echoes of Jana Hunter and other neo-psych projects in Secret Mountains.  It's not a label that they seem to decry as just about everything they do carries the wonderfully inscrutable quotation:
"You’ve got that neo-gothic Portishead vibe going on, laced with clear and delicate vocals, but then again, you’re so psychedelic. You’ve been reviewed by the NY Times but still remain totally obscure. You rock really hard but then you shoegaze away. You’re great, that’s all."
It's a pretty fair assessment of the band's identity -- if there is one that's totally fixed.  They seem to be plugging away at the gaps between genres.  While Hunter's music seems to probe silence for musicality and other other psych bands push toward integrating 21st century technology with a 60s and 70s vibe, Secret Mountains proceeds from an organic understanding of one another.  Rather than pushing their songs into a genre (or two) they are just as apt to spin a song on a dime, then let the riff hook through again and see what happens.

"High Horse," the lead single from the record, begins with a languid strum and slow-moving piano riff before frontwoman Kelly Laughlin takes over.  Laughlin's voice is one of the most consistently intoxicating aspects of the record -- at some points it seems to overshadow the other five members; at other points it's indistinguishable from the soundscape -- though the emphasis is less on lyrical content than it is texture.  The slow build of "High Horse" never seems to overdo itself.  The song tracks itself in measured increments without overreaching.  It's the mark of a band who is already beyond their years: rather than forcing a particular sound, they're ready to evolve and explore what they already have.  

The album's closer, "Reminder," is more indicative of the album as a whole.  The sextet runs this track through its paces, seemingly shifting three or four times in the course of its seven plus minutes without ever fully morphing into something totally different.  Here, it's not Laughlin's voice which provides cohesion, but the rhythm section and guitar work.  When the beat changes, the track suddenly appears to be a totally other song altogether, but in truth, the riff is simply extended.  It's a pretty neat trick, and one that allows Secret Mountains to maintain and build within their songs.  The depth and intensity that they employ from track to track is monumental.  You can hear the time that's gone into the maturation of this band.  Secret Mountains has taken a different route than many groups out there, releasing two sessions and two EPs before getting to their first full-length.  The time has paid off.  

After all that, Rainer takes a moment before really taking off.  The opener and title-track, "Rainer," begins with bird samples before Laughlin's voice rises on a guitar line with a gilt guitar track underneath buoyed by a throbbing rhythm section and fleshed out with swimming keyboards.  However, once made into "Weepy Little Fingers," the album has taken its full form. Here, things seem to fall into the right place and the band grooves forward, then pulses with staccato rhythms as Laughlin's slow-as-molasses voice honeys its way over the track.  It's also when the listener becomes locked in.

As the album's title implies, Rainer sounds like a landscape.  On the band's first EP, the jubilant Kaddish, the tracks are much more self-contained as the slow intoning of "Oh no it's happening again / so I'll wait for it to begin" on "Gate/Gate/Paragate." Here, the EP's music feels less compressed, whereas on Rainer, the most Kaddish-esque track "Coasting" is marked by a distinctively deeper instrumentation, an instrumentation which ultimately merges into Rainer's rocker, "Make Love Stay," where a poppy riff slows into a grooving line and draws forward before sliding into a transcendental chorus where Laughlin's insistent vocals give way to a fuzzy, schizo percussion.  The twists and turns of the tracks of Rainer take some listening.  It may take a few listens to discern one track from the next, but just as a landscape unfolds itself with familiarity, so too does Rainer uncover itself for the listener.   It's by virtue of Secret Mountains's songwriting, dense composition, and distinctiveness that this record slow-burns its way into your ears, proving this band to be a force in the years to come as it forges its own signature among the myriad of music that it brings to life. 

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