Album Review: The Mercury Tree, “Spidermilk”

I’m lucky to have parents that are fans of progressive music as well. I’ll often share with them different bands that I’ve discovered through Proglodytes,just to get their feedback. When I played my dad The Mercury Tree, he said, “Thomas, when I was a kid, I imagined that music in the future would sound like this.”

While the label “progressive” can often be laughably ironic, The Mercury Tree embodies a spirit and ethos that is fitting with the label. With each subsequent release, they have sought to push musical boundaries further and further. With the addition of composer/guitarist Igliashion Jones, The Mercury Tree sealed their commitment to xenharmonics/microtonality, which has proven to be their most divisive decision yet.

From their bandcamp: “This is our first full-length album composed entirely in microtonal tuning using 17 notes per octave. Using an assortment of custom-built instruments and synthetic sounds, and a newly expanded lineup, we’ve tried to craft something that’s beautiful yet completely unfamiliar.” And I’d say that last sentence is an apt description. As one would expect, the music is challenging, but not so challenging that it becomes completely unlistenable. As a matter of fact, Spidermilk is surprisingly palatable at times. It has enough strong melodies and beautiful moments to be familiar, but the microtonality has enough of a moment-to-moment presence in the songs that it feels alien.

Highlights for me include “Superposition of Silhouettes”, which, in some parallel universe where xenharmonics have made their way into popular music by 2019, this would be a major hit.  

I also love the hypnotic and jarring “Ark of An Ilk”, which features an incredibly catchy chorus and lyrics that will definitely provoke some strange stares if you walk around singing them in public places. The ending of “Ark” reminds me a bit more of the rhythms and breaks I had heard on previous Mercury Tree records. 

Also of note: the quirky, eager  “Throw Up My Hands”, which is a subdued and unsettling exercise in tension.

Spidermilk is a brilliant album, and I’ve grown to love it more and more with time, but it is all but guaranteed to challenge the sensibilities of many of the classic and even modern progressive rock fans. I have enjoyed playing the album for musician friends of mine, and gauging their reactions to the more jarring moments- it ranges from laughter to head scratching to outright dismissal. But with some context and acclimation, the album shows us the capabilities of this style of writing.

I remember studying the contemporary and experimental  classical artists that were exploring the world of.microtonality and at the time I thought it was sort of like musical Iron Chef: you’re given unusual or occasionally inedible ingredients and tasked to make something remotely palatable. I don’t see it that way anymore. We ARE in the musical future (or maybe better said, we’re not in the 70s anymore). There is nothing to be gained from following templates from rock bands that came about decades ago. I think bands in 2019 should be bold and adventurous and should be making strong musical statements, and I think The Mercury Tree, with Spidermilk, is showing us how.

Spidermilk was released independently on April 4, 2019. Buy it here.

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