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- Academy, Carmel »
Mercury Rev's euphoric, electronic Snowflake Midnight is a lot of things - brave, unexpected and a much-needed kick up the band's fey middle-aged arses - but, well, it's not really that good, is it? It's not exactly bad, it's just that the record's starry dazzle definitely offers diminishing returns: once the shock of the new subsides, a voice starts nagging away in your head, suggesting that some of this would fit disturbingly well onto a late-90s Ibiza chillout compilation. The vision of Jonathan Donahue gurning away on the terrace of Cafe Del Mar, it's... it's... well, it's not good.
But I think there's a reason why Snowflake Midnight at least sounds pretty good the first time, one that goes beyond mere relief that they haven't just made another rubbish version of All Is Dream (hello, The Secret Migration). There's definitely something to these tracks, it's just that perhaps the change hasn't gone far enough, the band's intrinsic sense of whimsy holding the songs' mechanical side too much in check – there are beats that tinkle when they should ker-boom like artillery fire, synths that prance delicately when they should be roaring like solar flares.
This didn't necessarily occur to me as before seeing them live, but how else to explain these songs' utterly transformation? Tonight's opening 'Snowflake In A Hot World' was always one of the record's better tracks, but here it's borderline transcendental, a maelstrom of luminescent keys and bone-rattling drum patterns that swirl higher and higher like a crackling cloud of fireflies, absorbing the blinding pink flicker of the ravey light show, meshing with the surreal projections, shot through by Donahue's voice, piercing and otherworldly... up, up it goes, and when it stops on record it keeps going, troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, Donahue flailing madly against the storm, before finally strapping on a guitar and channelling the energy in what appears to be a very distant relation to Snowflake Midnight's 'October Sunshine', all swathes of distortion and pummelling beats.
If my secret hope that the Mojo reader-ish crowd would start, y'know, getting on it doesn't come to fruition, the reception is more than polite, and band have so successfully validated their new direction within two songs that it's almost a shame when 'October Sunshine' finally segues into 'Holes'. Obviously it's not a shame, because 'Holes' is unspeakably lovely, and The Rev give it absolute respect, a smiling Donahue gesticulating like a happy despot, the six-piece band smoothly diverting their efforts from the frenetic opening into something more cinematic and graceful. There's always the danger that veteran artists tinkering with a new sound are going to be stingy with older stuff, but the five new songs played leave an indelible enough imprint on the evening (partly because the dizzying crests and waves of 'Dream Of A Young Girl As A Flower' take up a good ten minutes) that the band don't feel the need to drive the point home – we get 'The Dark Is Rising', 'Opus 41', 'Tonite It Shows', Yerself Is Steam's hazily intense 'Frittering', even a cover of Talking Head's 'Once In A Lifetime', Donahue's pie-eyed delivery transforming David Byrne's twitchy hymn of suburban disconnection into a statement of possibility – you really may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife.
Does this mean Snowflake Midnight was transitional and a perfection of Mercury Rev Mk 3 is around the corner? I dunno – if they're going to ram the electronics home more forcefully, a different producer would seem logical, but is Mercury Rev without David Friedman at the decks really Mercury Rev? The fact is they're trying, they're trying really hard, and in a live sense, it's working, the band's psyche roots apparently giving them an intuitive grasp of rave dynamics that makes me crave this same set 4am at Primavera. In the early days, they jammed out their songs to nature films; now they're wealthy enough to make and project their own documentaries (kind of), footage of alien-looking fish and nocturnal woodlands spliced and edited to fit their new material. That they've come so far and are still so hungry deserves to buy them a few more records' worth of goodwill, at the least.
Photo: Toni Blay
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