Crate-Digging: Mental Health Consumer – Backyard Mysteries

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Test Tube, 2010)

Is there anything good that really comes out of Pittsburgh? The Steelers win Super Bowls, I guess, but Ben Roethlisberger is a douchebag and, I dunno, possible sex offender. The Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 1992, but even then that was Barry Bonds’s team, he of the supreme dickish behavior to the media, staff, personnel, and teammates, not to mention either a current or future roid-head. And what’s hockey? I’unno. (Shrug. Big, bored shrug. I can’t even be interested enough to include hard consonants in my answer.) Honestly – I can’t really gauge anything that comes from there because I just don’t have much interest in the city – perhaps it’s because of the fact that it’s essentially the gateway to the Midwest for us Pennsylvanians, a part of the country I have very little interest in. I’ve been to Pittsburgh once … to see Korn. So … yeah. I can’t believe I just admitted that. That was a long time ago though, obviously. I’ve moved past my misguided teen angst. Plus, the sound at the venue was so bad – I wish I remembered more about it than I do, but there wasn’t much to it. Drive into city I had no interest in – in the middle of winter no less. See crappy show. Drive back out. Yeah, I don’t care.

Oh wait, Black Moth Super Rainbow is from out Pittsburgh way. They’re good.

Ah, and here’s the point. To borrow an old Leslie Nielsen (RIP) as Frank Drebin shtick, so is Mental Health Consumer. And so is Mental Health Consumer.

That’s right, Brian Ruskin, aka Mental Health Consumer, hails from The City That We All Forgot and actually has a PhD in Geology, which in itself makes sense when interacting with Backyard Mysteries, as tones and waves echo off the distant walls of large caverns or the claustrophobic proximity of smaller ones. And “beautiful” is not an adjective that comes to mind when imagining the blue-collar Pittsburgh populace, but the Appalachian Mountains and Allegheny River that runs through them sure are, and so we can deduce that Ruskin’s spent his fair share of time in them. So let’s leave the city, never to speak of it again, and head out into a more rural, peaceful setting, shall we? In fact, if you’ve got foothills or other geographic disturbances in your backyard, you should check them out – there might be a cave opening or headwater that you can explore and discover magical new places beneath the earth while you listen to Ruskin on your earbuds!

Subterranean certainly works as an adjective, and it’s Mental Health Consumer’s strongest currency – he trades in it, and in “underwater” too, I guess. In fact, “Sleep Cycle” feels more woozy than truly REM restful, with its ultra low end and periodic rhythmic crests, and more closely approximates silent ships passing closely in the night, late arrivals or departures from a port. I know so little about the Allegheny – and I’m not gonna look it up, damn you! – so I don’t have any idea if large ships make it all the way down to Pittsburgh or not, but perhaps Ruskin’s been inspired by the river travel. “Cold Rain Turns Green to Grey” is also (obviously) grounded in a watery theme, but a more playful one as synthesizers take a childish interest in the change in weather, peering through streaming panes and mentally preparing to splash in mud puddles. Ruskin also takes a childlike approach in “Reimagined Toy,” in which he deconstructs typical sound patterns, tones, and rhythms and rearranges them in an abstract way that’s both curious and equally as fun as something more accessible. I can relate to this – I used to unscrew my GI Joe action figures and recombine the pieces into new action figures. (OK, that’s not nearly the same, but a Snake Eyes/Lowlight hybrid? Pretty cool.)

Ruskin also works with found sound samples, lending his arrangements an air of musique concrète. He utilizes rain as a compositional element in “Cold Rain Turns Green to Grey”; a room full of competing conversations in “Sliding Lines of Sight”; and bird chirps and more water in the decidedly springlike “April Undecided.” “We’ll See About That” closes the album and features more traditional structure than the rest of Backyard Mysteries, a soft synth pop-flavored IDM excursion with billowing synthesizers and white hisses of steam, the sonic equivalent of the discovery of a hot spring in the Arctic Circle. Certainly a welcome shift. I’m a firm believer in album opener “Emmaus,” though, with its comforting guitar surfacing over synth pads and beeps – I could listen to it for hours. It has biblical connotations too, as Christ appeared, after his crucifixion and resurrection, to two of his followers on the road on the way to the titular city. I wonder if Ruskin meant to insinuate that connection or if he was more interested in the Pennsylvania town of Emmaus, although that town is on the opposite side of the state. And certainly isn’t pleasant enough to warrant a treatment as inviting as that on Backyard Mysteries.

Mental Health Consumer fits right in with the experimental electronic and ambient releases offered by Test Tube and sister label Resting Bell. It’s a bit more active than some of the single-track, half-hour releases that can crop up, though, and because of that it’s a bit more digestible. It’s certainly an immersive headphone record, and one worth tracking down. In fact, it’s available for free download from Test Tube, and also from Ruskin’s own site. So whether you’re in a meditative mood or want to hold your head underwater for a while, please consider this record. You probably won’t regret it – unless you dunk yourself in the Allegheny and get hit by a boat or something. I probably wouldn’t want to hang out in a Pittsburgh emergency room for very long.

RIYL: the Test Tube and Resting Bell netlabel rosters

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