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Mercury Rev

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This interview with Jeff mercel of Mercury Rev originally appeared on Gigwise.

“It’s been really strong reaction. It’s interesting to see how the new material fits in with the old stuff, but what’s more interesting actually is to see how the old songs, like stuff off of ‘Deserter’s Songs’, or  ‘All Is Dream’, or whatever, how those songs actually change to fit the stuff off of the new record.” Keyboardist and drummer Jeff Mercel is contemplating the return to live action of one of the most influential bands of the last 15 years, New York’s exquisite Mercury Rev. It’s 10 years since the release of the seminal ’Deserters Song’ LP that fixed the band firmly in the centre of conscientious music fans radar yet they show no sign of resting on the laurels of past endeavours. Mercury Rev have been very busy of late, following on from their last album proper, 2005’s ‘The Secret Migration’ and the interim best of collection, 2006’s ‘ The Essential Mercury Rev: Stillness Breathes 1991-2006’, they have returned in 2008 with a flurry of activity that sees them back on the road in support of not only their 7th studio album, ‘Snowflake Midnight’,  but also their simultaneously released 8th , it’s companion piece ‘Strange Attractor’.

It’s a triumphant return with expectations having been building steadily since the band  posted first single ‘Senses On Fire’ on their MySpace page. The mantra driven song set an incredibly high standard for the record, offering the promise of something a little bit special. But why a double album now and why  now? “We just got to the end of the sessions and we realised that we had  all this incredible instrumental music that complimented the main record and so we just wanted to find a way to get it out there.” recalls Mercel, “so we decided to put out this second album as a download.” Available as a free download ‘Strange Attractor’ offers a subtler  journey than it’s companion piece, very much offering the other side to ‘Midnight Snowflake’, yet retaining enough power and clarity to be held up as a stand alone body of music. Throughout both records there seems to be a pervading sense of freedom, a bigger heart to the music, whereas before there seemed to be a constant sense of searching throughout albums, a litany of questions without answers, there seems now to be a peace and a self knowledge at the heart of Mercury Rev. Mercel muses that this is the result of a purely organic process. Despite the three year gap since their last album proper and the release of the best Mercel doesn’t think that they consciously drew a line under their previous work. Plaintive voiced singer Jonathan Donahue has stated that this was a record born out of endless jam sessions that recalls the period prior to their 1991 debut ‘Yerself Is Steam’. “I don’t think we were consciously drawing a line under anything with that.,” says Mercel, “we didn’t feel any renewed sense of freedom because we’d put that compilation out. The genesis (of this record) was a natural progression.”  From the opening bars of ‘Snowflake In A Hot World’ to the closing coda of  ‘A Squirrel and I (Holding On…and Then Letting Go)’ it’s clear that intentional or not ‘Midnight Snowflake’ and to a lesser extent ‘Strange Attractor’ represent something of a reinvention for Mercury Rev. The music is muscular and powerful, creating seismic, aural fissures that engulf the listener in an undeniably uplifting surge. Listening to the album on headphones can give you moments of stomach turning excitement, like a musical freefall. Combined with a subject list that deals with a naturalistic spiritualism that recalls William Blakes Romantics it serves to create a whole that is the most powerful work that Mercury Rev have produced to date.

The band will be bringing this new tour de force to Europe in the autumn kicking off the British leg on October 30th in Ireland. “We’re really looking forward to it,” says Mercel, “we’ll be playing a mixed set but there will be a lot more of the new albums than there was in the summer,” he continues referencing the bands UK festival appearances including transcendent sets at Scotland’s Hydro Festival and the intimate End Of The Road Festival. With the strength of the new material combining with their career spanning body of work the live shows on their forthcoming tour cannot fail to ignite fans new and old, and even if the band have long since left behind the more chaotic live roots when they used to trade in the kind of live uncertainty and craziness that epitomised such bands as Butthole Surfers.  However, where you may no longer find the band with an errant singer at the bar or only playing a third of a set they now produce music that quickens the pulse far more than any shambolic spectacle ever could.

Whilst ‘Midnight Snowflake’ represents the focused, lean Mercury Rev the band have also been stretching their experimental wings in other arenas including a 2 night stand  at experimental musician John Zorn’s legendary performance space The Stone under the moniker of ‘Trip The Light Fantastic’. “Oh those shows are just a complete release. They are just crazy. It’s a lot of fun to play music that way,” says Mercel with a tangible excitement in his voice.

There is a common perception in music that all things are cyclical and that every 10 years there is a crop of exceptional bands. It seems that this can also be transposed onto the careers of  certain bands, whether it is the wisdom that age brings or the freedom from expectation that bands with longer careers enjoy is unclear, but many bands currently seem to be producing their most vital and exciting work in the second half of their careers. 10 years after they reached critical and commercial tipping point with ‘Deserters Songs’ Mercury Rev are doing just that.

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