Jettisoning the traditional instruments they rarely used in traditional ways in favor of digital sounds culled from an open-source library of electronic effects, Mercury Rev’s Snowflake Midnight stands as a significant departure for the band, at least in terms of overhauling their creative process. That doesn’t necessarily mean the album is progressive or experimental: If anything, much of the sonic template for Snowflake recalls frontman Jonathan Donahue’s collaborations with the Chemical Brothers and albums by Four Tet, Boards of Canada and Caribou. But Donahue, Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak and Jeff Mercel have proven their creativity over the course of the band’s 20-year career, so even if their digital programming techniques aren’t exactly cutting edge, Snowflake still manages to offer compelling surprises in its ever-shifting arrangements and its densely layered effects. “Senses on Fire” succeeds in playing the minimalism of its lyrics against multi-tracked vocals and an insistent, surging groove, while “Butterfly’s Wing” skews more toward ambient, which works with the song’s delicate, soaring free-form prose. Donahue, as always, risks crossing the line between open sincerity and twee. The refrain of “People Are So Unpredictable” is, “There’s no bliss like home,” which would be a bit much even for the Polyphonic Spree, while the riotously titled “A Squirrel and I (Holding On…and Then Letting Go)” includes repeated samples of children’s laughter. Still, its dependence on fussy, meticulous electronic elements tempers some of the band’s drippier new-agey tendencies, which makes it easier to appreciate how often Snowflake finds Mercury Rev at their most majestic and most ambitious.
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