You can accuse When Mountains Speak of many things. Perhaps being a bit “out there” for the more mainstream audience, maybe their songs develop slowly for some. Others, perhaps the younger element with a short attention span, might suggest that their lengthy musical statements don’t grab the listener immediately (all positions I am more than happy to defend on the band’s behalf, by the way.) But the one thing that no one can accuse them of is of having a slow musical output.
Maybe the work rate is reflective of the band being a permanent three-piece outfit now rather than a solo project with a fluid flow of collaborators, but it seems that as the last notes of one release are just fading out, a new release is being ushered in. That said, this full-length album, Time Left Ajar, is the latest, a solo project by leading man Steven Wright Clarkson. Still, it is of the When Mountains Speak canon and a necessary part of their story, not to mention an essential addition to your record collection.
Even by When Mountains Speak standards, it is pretty challenging in places. The titular opening track and Rainbow Experiment owe more to free, improvised, fractured and noodling jazz-rock than anything more structured and purposeful. It’s a brave way to kick things off, for sure. If music, like all art, is about self-express rather than worrying about what the listener might make of the results, this is what’s happening here. And good on them for remembering how creativity works.
The listener is then rewarded with Happy, a groovesome dance track…of sorts. It might be created using the same musical building blocks as before, but it shows that once mastered, they can be turned to any form or function of choice.
And so it goes. The album wanders between more tethered and song-like tracks and blasts of free-form expression. Circus is a strange and cyclical beast, built from sound spirals and disembodied musical motifs, recognisable elements and familiar sounds presented as an anagram and amalgam of what most people think music is. But music is a wild and varied creature, and it moves on by pushing at its own borders, by finding the potential in pastures new and if that casts When Mountains Speak in the role of sonic explorers, then I’m sure that it is a role they are more than happy to play.
And by contrast, songs such as Elephant Dance and Soul Surfing are mellifluous and multi-layered, smooth and sensual, as if to say, “see, we can play things straighter and more conventionally if we choose to. It’s just that we often prefer not to.”
The album is available from 22nd September on the band’s website, and as I said before, it may be Steven returning to the solo roots of the project, but it is an essential step in the When Mountains Speak story.