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.
…Unless I decide to skip around the alphabet. In fact, I believe I’ll skip around for all of March…
(Dead Oceans, 2010)
You gotta love a record that sinks its teeth into you, one that you feel piercing the darkest depths of your gut. Frog Eyes specializes in the visceral, their brutal approach to experimental indie-prog, or whatever the hell you want to call this festering morass, oscillates between violent bursts of id, toxic lullabies, and instrumental passages of dread and despair. In other words, it’s great – the stuff that not just music critics but philosphical and literary minds should be chewing over for generations. Singer/guitarist/songwriter/showman Carey Mercer’s ability to turn a phrase (or a thousand) cannot be matched – cannot. It is written, here, that he has no equal. He weaves tales of dread. Tales of woe. Tales of heroism and despair. Even tales of love (though, to be fair, these usually end up with someone crushed upon rocks, dashed to bits at the bottom of cliffs, or washed unceremoniously upon black beaches). These Mercer doesn’t just sing, no, not in any conventional way. He frantically bellows, he seethes, he shakes with paranoia, he howls like he’s being led to his own execution. Maybe he is – or maybe one of his characters is. Each song gets infused with its own monstrous persona – each a chapter in the fictional tale of Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph. It’s probably a good thing that “autobiographical” is not found in any description of the album. Good for Mercer, that is.
Why all this negative imagery, and how would one even find it palatable, let alone tempting? Mercer has the ability, through bile and shit, to get to the ugly center and dissect the human psyche to its darkest atoms. He’s rolling precise words over his tongue, precise thoughts through his mind about how people tick, and where their motivations for evil and menace truly originate. His fascinating conclusions routinely end in misery, like modern-day Shakespearean tragedies. This makes perfect sense, as Mercer spent many years teaching English in British Columbia. A “Lear” even makes an appearance – twice in fact – and whether or not it’s the titular King gone mad or an allusion to him as a storytelling device, it matters little in the scheme.
The stories, while elliptical by nature, are filled with fantastic words and imagery – flowery language you’d expect to find in an illuminated manuscript – so you’re able to grasp cryptic concepts by association if not directly. I often find myself transported somewhere in the past while listening to the band, buoyed as it were by the precise and baroque arrangements and vocalizations, and medieval England tends to be a good landing place, or the Middle Ages, by rivers or in forests, just outside of an outpost or a town. So much ornate imagery and characterization is wedged into the format of a Frog Eyes album – riders, townsfolk, battles, gods, and great, powerful temptations. But here, even though the band’s palette remains relatively unchanged compared to previous albums, I find myself having to rethink the places I’m whisked while listening – for the first time the album cover does not feature an original Mercer painting; instead, the Russian-looking scientific military subjects either looking through telescopes or aiming missiles, plops me unceremoniously in the present. I’m going to have to ignore them, I think – I prefer this album to unstick me in time.
I am not here to whittle down the language and extract meaning from this album – that would be foolish, and I would clearly fail. I’ll leave that to a literary critic. I am here to tell you that, sonically and cohesively, the band sounds like no other, and sounds better than ever. This here is their fifth album, and one incarnation or another has been active since 1994. That’s a lot of years for small band on a small label whose members have (or had) day jobs. But the mythos and magic of collaboration has kept them going and maturing exponentially. (It also doesn’t hurt that Mercer is married to drummer Melanie Campbell – oh to be a fly on the wall at those dinner-table conversations: Melanie – “How was your day?” Carey – “Revitalization has become the pitfalls of the lame, as if I was the wind pirouetting between the rain.” Melanie: “Goddammit, Carey.”) I don’t know if the subtitle A Triumph was appended to Paul’s Tomb after the recording was complete, but that’s exactly what this is. I was under the impression that “Bushels,” the 9-minute focal point of 2007’s Tears of the Valedictorian, was perhaps the best thing the band had yet laid to tape, but holy crap, they crush us right out of the gate here with 9-minute opener “A Flower in a Glove,” reaching bombastic new heights as the entire first half is one big crescendo. Mercer and new guitarist Ryan Beattie sound as if they’re strangling their guitars to death, and their incendiary interplay smacks of the dynamic enjoyed by Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Danny Whitten.
Points of reference peek out to help you navigate through the rush, such as “Odetta’s War” on which armies gather on distant shores and lament the rain and the enemy, and on “Rebel Horns” which sees the return of Donna, Mercer’s muse on solo project Blackout Beach’s Skin of Evil. The quieter “Violent Psalms,” perhaps the title itself the best descriptor of Frog Eyes’ music, quakes in its trepidation with the beautiful opening, “Silhouettes, dreaded swamps, oil baths from the factory lake / I am dreaming of a painting from the spring of my mind / I have defined the lines and now I shake. / Wretched palms, violent psalms, / violet fades from the cheek of my babe. / I shall cover you and swaddle you in Eden’s last night, / I shall hope for the end of dark, dark days.” Dark indeed, and this dark promise of violence manifests itself in album centerpiece, the awesome suite “Styled By Dr. Roberts,” where base men let their vulgar actions do the talking: “You want to hit him in the fucking knees! And then you hit him in the fucking knees!”
Frog Eyes certainly isn’t for everyone – Mercer’s voice, the claustrophobic arrangements, and violent execution will turn some off before they get too far. But give Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph as much of a chance as you can muster, because it opens itself up more and more upon repetition. It’s a gorgeously palpable and rawly textured meditation – and Frog Eyes are truly here to judge the damned and raise holy hell. How could you not want to at least observe that trainwreck? Too bad there’s no escape, as Mercer frantically gulps in “Odetta’s War,” “everybody’s got a hole in their heart” and “a darkness in their gut.” Watch out.
RIYL: Sunset Rubdown, Destroyer, Swan Lake