It's a mark of the curiousness of A Mountain of One's music that my attempts to compliment them frequently come out sounding decidedly ambivalent. Like: imagine the spectral post-rock of Bark Psychosis's Hex with all the sharp edges massaged away. Or: it's swirling Balearic rock infused with the earnest pomp of Mike and the Mechanics. Perhaps it's just in the nature of this UK group to resist any straightforward way of approaching them. On this collection of their releases to date (two EPs and two new compositions), their music can be as alienating as it is enticing, but unlike the legions of noisy punk or freak-folk bands that walk this same fine line, it's an obscene taste for beauty that can add a slightly sickly edge to Collected Works' seductiveness.
A Mountain of One exist in the same "nu Balearic" interzone as Swedish duo Studio, albeit with a less clearly pronounced debt to dance music. Yes, they dabble in Tangerine Dream-style synth wanderings, in drowsy disco rhythms, and even in pomo sampling-- but then, the Verve did that too once. And the Verve is not a bad point of comparison for much of this music, not least because the two bands share a wide-eyed stargazer quality and psych-cum-soft-rock lushness. More insidiously, if A Mountain of One follow the Verve in becoming a ubiquitous rock music choice for dance fans, it will be as much because they embody what dance fans often presume to be the point of rock (the heightened role of performance, the appearance of lyrical depth... perhaps just its alleged capacity for meaning it, man) as because of their formal similarities to dance music (electronic brushstrokes and voluptuous over-production).
Tenuous though it is, this line of communication with dance music remains the key to A Mountain of One's success. On their first and better EP, the group is captured poised in the space between project and band. Already they flaunt a decidedly spiritual edge on the urgent acoustic strum of "Ride", and in the ghostly and magical power-ballad "Freefall", which has the inspired idea of splitting the difference between the Blue Nile and 10cc- the singer's gentle, resonant falsetto perhaps never having known hoarseness. But such gestures feel primarily aesthetic, as if A Mountain of One love rock music mostly for the sheer sonic loveliness of its serious vocals and soaring choruses. And these moments are balanced by more mysterious pieces, like the m้lange of piano chords and operatic vocals on "Our Eyes", or the marvelous Italo-disco cover "Can't Be Serious", which features Martina Topley-Bird's fragile voice over a whimsical disco groove that becomes progressively overshadowed by a chorus of moaning guitars.
The band's second EP falls back slightly from such heights by pursuing a less ambiguous spiritual argument: with its endlessly spiraling guitar lines, distantly rumbling percussion and close-harmonizing chorus vocals, the epic "Innocent Line" offers a such a decadently reverent sound that it calls to mind the orgiastic musical climaxes of Pentecostal mega-churches. It's not a question of whether A Mountain of One believe in the brand of rococo spiritualism they evoke, but rather whether the song can support the amassed weight of meaning and significance invested in it. Such is the transformative promise of "Innocent Line", together with its even more overblown instrumental companion, "Innocent Reprise", that disappointment becomes almost inevitable (this may be overstating it: later on "Arc of Abraham" treads a very similar line, yet its intoxicating air of mystery saves it from drowning in a sea of pomp).
Perhaps such pitfalls are a necessary part of A Mountain of One's considerable charms. Collected Works feels uncomfortably fervent at its best as much as its worst: the difference is that between the carefully stage-managed grandeur of the massive church service, and the quiet, inscrutable awe inspired by an abandoned cathedral. Perhaps this music is most affecting not when it speaks to us directly, but rather when it speaks to and about itself: on the astonishing "People Without Love", the band introduce a street zealot's rant to a glorious loop from Fleetwood Mac's "Caroline", and then surrounds them with layers of shimmering synthesizers and wistful guitar. The song moves from fiery certainty towards a tentativeness that is beguiling, more fragile hymn than rousing congregational chorus. In this solitary uncertainty lies A Mountain of One's most promising future-- and anyway, the congregations hardly need them.
Tim Finney, December 3, 2007