There are forces, forces that we prefer to describe as “out there”: darkening and obscure to our touch, our everyday sentiments. Churning and rending, oblivious to our immediate concerns, operating under a sempiternal indifference. Phil Elverum might add that this purposeful act of externalization blinds us to the teeming ecosystems of our bodies, the fraying and reassembly of even our most precious memories and understandings, the continual decay offset only through steady application (say, diet) and industry (say, infrastructure). The keen eye of Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, tending to his yard and struggling with the composition of its dimensions, observes that:
“A lawn does not have precise boundaries; […] A complicity seems to have been established between the sown grasses and the wild ones, a relaxing of the barriers imposed by difference of birth, a tolerance resigned to deterioration.”
Similarly, the easy and steadying cadences of “I Walked Home Beholding” finds Elverum discovering “A moment of clear air breathing, seeing the expanse,” having been “Tossed on the waves/ Blown onto land/ Grasping meaning/ In churning mess.” This dynamic of clarity wrought from the noise of life winds through Ocean Roar and its sister album Clear Moon. Conceived and performed in the same all-analog studio during a 15-month stretch, the two albums do not so much exist in opposition than illustrate the sequencing of two very distinct moods. Ocean Roar largely turns its attention to the forces opposite clarity and structure. In place of Clear Moon’s expansive songcraft, we have Sturm und Drang, clangor, droning vistas. This dark gravity limns the most potent expression of Elverum’s infatuation with the extreme sonic density of black metal, marking Mount Eerie’s furthest point of departure from The Microphone’s quintessential lo-fi indie pop — even further than the explorations and exhortations of Wind’s Poem. When volume is called for, the mix gets big in terms that should not be wholly unfamiliar to longtime fans of The Glow Pt. 2.
Elverum has never sounded more comfortable as a producer of volume and viscosity. He seems more interested in the mythological roots and bludgeoning affect of bands like Burzum and Nadja than the idiomatic expressions of their craft. It’s not the riffs, but the intent, and how refreshing at that! “Waves” and “Pale Lights” are architecturally large, blanketing bluster with guitar squalls the equal of Crazy Horse-era Neil Young, Circle, early Boris, or Isis — name your progenitor. Form, visible at first, further congeals, until each song literally gives way to Elverum’s measured, gentle delivery. The attack of “Pale Lights” fades into the background as the song’s lonely meditation is met call-and-response with ambivalent organ voicings, the violence of the roar mitigated by direct, clear-headed observation. And, my god, the sonic details abound, and no surprise in that. Headphone and high-volume listening is rewarded with characteristically hard-panned acoustic guitars, mixed so low in the mix as to resemble the delicate lattice of feedback overtones found on both “Pale Lights” and the album-closing instrumental.
I also adore the straight-forwardness of the intent on the sole cover, Popul Vuh’s “Engel Der Luft.” Huge, simple sonics with feedback cantilevers à la Rhys Chatham, bigger than Explosions in the Sky. There’s an editorial restraint that reinforces the sonic craftsmanship. The two more traditionally melodic tracks, “Ocean Roar” and “I Walked Home Beholding,” betray — of all things — a bit of a late-90s/early-00s Radiohead sense of progression and mood. And like “House Shape,” the title track here offers a much-abbreviated intro toying with our expectations of the song’s key, as a fuzz bass slides down its heaviest gauge string towards its open end-point. In light of all the attention to detail, why bother arguing with the first instrumental’s facile Asian pentatonics? I’ll take it as a suitably odd ode to Moondog and crank the volume for “Waves” once more.
At the conclusion of Clear Moon’s moody “Lone Bell,” Elverum asks aloud, “What is left of the dissipating dream world I made?” Well, jeez, Phil, how’s about half a dozen of the world’s most beautifully and lovingly crafted independent records available for daily, tactile pleasure? Elverum’s prodigious printmaking and photography, coupled with the expanding horizons afforded Mount Eerie, suggest refinement as an injunction, a veritable condition of existence. Use the tools you have to make the finest thing possible, and so on. This drive toward refinement is much more interesting to me than competing narratives of maturation or artistic “growth.” So perhaps in art we find the clearest and most profitable counterpoint to the roiling waves: the continual creation and communication of the details of our experience (and a refinement thereof), a celebration of the necessary distortions of building these temporary worlds that speak to us above the fog of dampening concerns.