There are those who view a journey as a necessary evil between a point of departure and a destination. Then there are those who realize the journey's actually the thing, and relish it.
Most popular music fits into the former camp. The chorus hook is the destination and, increasingly, artists, producers and money-counting overseers seem to be in a hurry to get there. Sometimes, this can yield stunning results. Who doesn't love a quality, fat-free, smartly produced pop song with a big, fat, sugary chorus? More often, though, one wishes some of these songsmiths would roll down the window, let some air in and take in the sights along the way.
The idea of exploiting the space between departure and arrival is not wholly the provision of progressive-rock music. It has its roots in classical music, of course, where the harmonic possibilities of each chord could be milked dry, and melodies, harmonies, contrapuntal lines and the like arrive unexpectedly and often. Jazz, too, is all about this concept where the point of the journey is not to arrive -- recall how often you've listened to be-bop and realized that the musicians seemed to be playing the "head" (the "hook," in jazz) as a formality, so obviously did they long for the wide-open road of improvisation, where anything could and should happen.
Progressive rock, though . . . oh, wait a minute, I guess we better define this oft-abused descriptive. OK, when I say "prog-rock," I mean the offshoot of rock music wherein it was accepted to be experimental and expansive; to draw from anywhere one's interest pointed; and, commonly, to feel absolutely no obligation to follow the rules of the pop game.
Yes, it's indeed true that this could be a recipe for a big, steaming plate of disaster, and yes again, it's equally true that punk came along in the late '70s to stick a safety pin in the huge, inflatable pig of bloated prog-rock. But when it worked, as it did more often than not, it was pure magic, of the transportative sort.
If this all seems like a long-winded way to approach the new music Mercury Rev has just released, well, that's because I'm the sort of guy who enjoys the journey more than the arrival. So too, from the sound of things, are the men in Mercury Rev.
I like to refer to the group as a Buffalo band, though that's really a bit disingenuous. It's true that Mercury Rev was formed out of bohemian-type art projects between friends studying at the University at Buffalo. But Rev leaders Jonathan Donahue and Sean "Grasshopper" Mackowiak haven't lived here in a long time, preferring the relative serenity of the Catskill Mountains to the urban decay and suburban sprawl of our town, it would seem. It should also be pointed out that, though I find this absolutely baffling, Mercury Rev is far bigger in Britain than it is here in the States, despite the fact that the group has released at least three of the 25 most adventurous rock records of the past 10 years or so.
Still, Mercury Rev represents a strain of Romantic experimentalism that I find to be the very thing that marks our own music scene as a special one. For me, this runs deep, probably because I was attending Fredonia State at the same time as Mercury Rev's former bassist and still-today-producer Dave Fridmann, whose sound-recording major at the school found him recording early versions of the Flaming Lips right there on campus. Rev's Donahue was a member of that band for a while. It's interesting that the seeds planted in Fredonia at the tail-end of the '80s would go on to sprout a tree whose fruits ended up being some of the finest American music of the next decade, and this current one, too.
Donahue split from the Flaming Lips, and formed Mercury Rev, and Fridmann stayed on to produce both bands, in the process becoming the producer du jour of his (and my) generation, and acting in a capacity similar to the one George Martin filled with the Beatles. This would hit an absolute zenith in the denouement of the '90s, when Mercury Rev released "Deserter's Songs," (featuring Buffalonian and Odiorne leader Jimy Chambers on drums) and the Lips released "The Soft Bulletin." These two records are as significant to modern music as are Radiohead's "OK Computer" and Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." They changed the paradigm and made the possibility of a post-prog-rock progressive music manifest.
I belabor this point for a reason, that being that Mercury Rev has done it again, with the release of the wholly engaging, suspended animation and state-of-grace implying, stubbornly expansive "Snowflake Midnight" record, and its companion piece, "Strange Attractor." Familiar, and yet boldly different, "Snowflake" takes the body of Mercury Rev's previous work, cuts it into random pieces, throws them in the air, and then reassembles them into something bubbling and newborn.
By doing so, the group sets another new standard whereby "progressive" music must be measured. Particularly for any of us making art here in Buffalo. It sprung from the same soil we're walking on, after all.