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Looking back, The Microphones were less a band than lo-fi’s answer to the Wagnerian cycle. From the mid-90s to 2003, the Anacortes, Wash., band tested the limits of indie-folk metaphor (its four proper albums formed a loose Bildungsroman exploring the four classical elements) and DIY recording (its swan song, Mount Eerie, is surely the most sonically ambitious album ever recorded on a 16-track). Then, The Microphones — which is to say Phil Elvrum, its mastermind — broke up. He started touring as Mount Eerie, and his music became less narrative and twee, and more hermetic. And he recorded a lot: The point of listening to the stripped-down Mount Eerie became volume, not scope or statement.
So perhaps it will surprise fans that Wind’s Poem, an oppressively noisy, often alienating affair, is Elvrum’s fullest and most coherent album in years.
For much of the album, which is in stores today, Elvrum — although now he’s Elverum, as in his P.W. Elverum & Sun label — replaces his eccentric folk music with what he calls “black metal with natural materials.” That’s fairly self-evident: Elvrum drenches dirges like “Wind’s Dark Poem” and “The Hidden Stone” in clamorous, bulky distortion, a blanket of sound that’s both ambient and antagonistic. The noise sounds like a wrathful deity, and it nearly overwhelms Elvrum’s gentle, searching murmur. As it has been in the past, Elvrum’s M.O. is using dense studio wizardry to approximate nature’s grandeur and horror.
That’s nothing new to Elvrum: Man’s relationship with nature is his most frequent theme. But where The Microphones’ albums saw the natural settings of the Pacific Northwest (as well as some more fictional landscapes) as paths to existential truth, Wind’s Poem has other perspectives. Sometimes, it’s downright dystopian: Where Elvrum’s protagonists were once carried by gusts (like in the Microphones song “I Want Wind To Blow”), here they’re conquered by vengeful storms. Other times, in droning, more benevolent songs like “Wind Speaks” and “Through The Trees,” his voice is the wind’s itself. “I remove bodies, and I hold void, I have no shape,” Elvrum sings midway through the album; a song later, he pleads, “Come wind, destroyer of worlds.” Far from its amiable title, Wind’s Poem is a pitched battle, with Elvrum inhabiting both combatants.
That can be draining, at least until “Between Two Mysteries,” the closest thing to a pop song here. Set to a casual, brushed rhythm and a gurgling glockenspiel, it also has a summary purpose, taking measure of the album’s themes before the noisy denouement. With The Microphones, this was Elvrum’s great trick: The songwriting was as impressive as the big statements. In the years since, with a string of LPs, CD-Rs, and other small projects, Elvrum has focused on the songs. Now, the ideas are re-emerging.