So at this point, my year is just about over.
I’m waiting on Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, which – barring any last-minute surprises – should be the last major release of 2013. There are a bunch of smaller ones – Cut Copy, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Brendan Benson – and one other that I’m intensely looking forward to: Hammock’s Oblivion Hymns. But once I hear Reflektor, I think I will know the shape of the year.
And it’s been an odd one. My top five right now includes a folksy double album from a long-running married couple, a neo-soul statement of purpose from a young genius, a disco revival record from two guys in motorcycle helmets, a dazzling progressive epic from a Scottish singer with a 30-year track record, and the strange and wonderful little thing I’m talking about this week. I discovered Laura Mvula, Little Green Cars and Tom Odell, which is an amazing streak for just one year. But those three, like most of the great albums of the year, have absolutely nothing in common.
Which is actually a good segue into my full review of Gungor’s new record, I Am Mountain. As I mentioned in my mini-review a couple weeks ago, this album contains 12 songs, and none of them sound even a little bit alike. It’s often difficult to believe, listening in sequence, that the same group of musicians devised and performed all of these tracks. But the wonder of I Am Mountain is that all of them sit comfortably next to each other (and in some cases segue into one another) as if it’s perfectly natural for one band to reach this far.
So, who the hell is Gungor? Well, up until now, they’ve been a pretty decent worship band. Their previous efforts, culminating in 2011’s spectral Ghosts Upon the Earth, have been concerned with bringing church music out into the larger world without losing its identity. Michael and Lisa Gungor, the married couple at the heart of this band, have so far written lovely hymns and played them like a hybrid of David Crowder, Sufjan Stevens and Sigur Ros. Previous Gungor records are very pretty, for what they are, but they’re straightforwardly religious praise, with little real depth to them. (Their live album was even called A Creation Liturgy, just so you know how church-y they have been.)
I Am Mountain is the first album they’ve released on their own label, Hither and Yon Records. And the Gungors could not have made a more obvious statement of freedom if they’d tried. Nothing on any prior Gungor album will prepare you for this one. None of these songs could be played in church. The lyrics are seeking and doubtful, when they’re not about topics the band has previously steered clear of – the dark politics of “God and Country,” for example, or the retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth “Beat of Her Heart.”
And musically, this album is a beast. It should sound like 12 different personalities jockeying for space, but it doesn’t. That the Gungors and their many guests – string players, horn players, vocalists, etc. – can play in all of these styles comfortably, and make such a strong showing out of this entire album, is remarkable. I don’t necessarily want to pick out one portion over another, since all the music here is pitch-perfect, but Michael Gungor’s guitar on “Yesternite,” for example, is astonishing. This band can clearly play everything, and on I Am Mountain, they’ve decided to.
I’ve heard no other album this year that deserves a track-by-track review the way this one does, so here goes.
The title track starts off like Sufjan Stevens, with interleaving keyboard and guitar parts, as Michael and Lisa Gungor harmonize a fragile, repeated melody. But the soaring wordless chorus dispels any lingering twee-ness – it explodes out of nowhere, a thoroughly effective “whoa-oh” that invites you, by the hand, into this record. Good thing, too, because the second track, “The Beat of Her Heart,” is a complete left turn – a folk tale rendered in a mix of centuries-old melodicism and twangy surf guitar. As mentioned above, this tells the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice and their ill-fated reunion in the underworld. It’s like nothing I’ve heard – the 3-D web of percussion is striking.
“Long Way Off” is much more straightforward, a pop song that floats on electric piano and a lovely melody. It’s about the march of science, and how many questions open up with each answer: “The smartest men, they saw a world with corners and endings far, far away, but when they drew it out and searched it, they were a long way off, we’re a long way off…” Bonus points for working the phrase “apophatic mystic” into something so sweet and catchy.
“Wandering,” then, comes out of nowhere. Lisa Gungor sings this melancholy number through the auto-tuner, over little more than a plunking piano and a subtle horn bed. The effect is wonderful, and the song is gorgeous, particularly the middle section, in which she really puts the vocoder through its paces, somehow transforming it into the loneliest sound in the world. The final “I’ve been wandering through this world” is dry and effect-free, and somehow more hopeful because of it. This song is amazing.
With everything so far, you’d be forgiven if “Let It Go” knocks you off your chair. It’s a synth-happy dance-rock song, with wacka-wacka guitar, and a chorus that’ll lift you off the ground. This is such a capable dance tune – complete with synth breakdown – that it’s almost hard to believe it’s the band’s first one. Similarly, “Wayward and Torn” is their first back-porch blues-rocker, with a stomping-and-hand-clapping beat and some impressively authentic acoustic work. Seriously, the band takes you from Phoenix to Jack White in back-to-back tracks.
And then comes “God and Country,” wafting in on a Pink Floyd keyboard oscillation. The song couldn’t be more surprising, though – a full-on Spaghetti western rocker, with a killer riff and some wrist-breaking percussion. (And the sound of a whip.) It’s the band’s most political tune, and its most rocking – check out the Ennio Morricone horns, and then marvel at Michael Gungor’s shredding lead guitar. “How we love our God, oh God we love our guns for the love of country, for our fathers and our sons,” the Gungors sing, before bringing it home with an acoustic outro: “Those who live by the gun die by the gun…”
What to do after that? How about a complex interlude that features wordless vocals, intertwining and combining into new shapes for two minutes? Yes, that’s “Hither and Yon,” and it glides seamlessly into “Yesternite,” a heroic bit of acoustic guitar playing that forms the backbone of a melodically complicated piece. What starts off sounding like a classical number slowly turns into a fantasia, complete with dark string flourishes. It’s hard to even know how to categorize this song, but one thing is certain: Michael Gungor can certainly play the guitar. I mean, wow.
“The Best Part” is a showcase for Lisa Gungor, and it sounds a lot like Enya to me, with the subtle keyboard bed and the clear, high vocals. The chorus brings in a trip-hop drum beat, and what sounds like Darth Vader’s breathing used as a percussion instrument. The chorus is haunting, the song effectively minimal and beautiful. At first, it seems like “Finally” is going to follow in the same vein, its understated guitars and vocals caressing instead of jostling. Even the chorus is muted. But then the banjo breaks in, and the song turns into a hands-in-the-air anthem. “Be here in the free, we could just be, finally…”
But that’s not the closing track. Oh no. “Upside Down” is a stunning finale, eight minutes of ever-building beautiful. It’s the album’s only prayer: “This world is upside down, do you see us, do you hear us, make it right.” Michael Gungor sings this over some fragile, reverbed guitar, and then for the last six minutes, the wave gathers strength, the instruments coalescing, the strings crashing in, the pianos building, and finally it all breaks, in one of the odder musical moments of the year. The last 90 seconds are bizarre – muffled conversations in each speaker, synths rising past the point of human tolerance, everything falling apart and floating to the ground. It’s an off-kilter finish, but on repeated listens, a fascinating one.
I didn’t expect it, but I Am Mountain is one of my favorite records of the year. I haven’t been able to stop listening to it. It’s an expression of unbridled artistic freedom from a band that has remained in a lovely jeweled box of their own making for years. There’s nothing like this in their catalog, and nothing like it on the shelves, either – you have to go back to prime Queen to find something this fearlessly varied, and Gungor pulls it off with a miraculous consistency. They’ve always been good, but on I Am Mountain, they kick open their own doors and make the leap to extraordinary.
See you in line Tuesday morning.