Mainstream Alt Rock is the experimental electronic/ambient project of Washington, D.C. residents Noah Smith and Ian Mugerwa. Even though they’re still just 18, these guys are brimming with ideas; their first cohesive release, “Sylvan Test Record | Food for the Forest,” is a concept album recorded with just “ableton, our instruments, and a broken mic,” but it sounds a hell of a lot more professional than that. Speaking as a guy who has recorded an album in his bedroom, the production quality is really on-point – I’m excited for these guys to get access to more expensive equipment! Anyway, about the music.
The album begins with a prologue composed almost entirely of wordless vocals which are subtle at first but grow to be hair-raising and clearly orchestrated (with percussion, strings, and maybe even a horn in there). The transition to the ambient “Sunrise” somewhat reminds me of the Antlers’ Hospice, particularly because of the chunky-yet-shimmering ambient tone which is produced (also beacuse of the formal talent these guys have with ambience!). The narrative begins on the third track “Friend,” and it continues the trend of ‘being pretty’ (accept all the little things / from the lamb to the earth / bells of fortune ring / but not for those that with the demons sing), but I’m not so sure that it provides the concrete signposting that these boys seem to expect it to. That is to say, I read this and think, “oh cool, pretty lyrics to go with the pretty vocals,” but I don’t really get a sense of what the narrative is actually about. In fact, I’m sort of wishing I had a text paragraph somewhere to talk about this stuff; the prologue is wordless, and of the five songs which actually have lyrics to read through, only three or four are substantive (on “Sickness,” the only thing that isn’t “[inaudible]” is “I am the reaper now…” and that’s not exactly a wealth of narrative information). This isn’t really a complaint – I like subtlety and mystery – just maybe the ‘concept album’ advertisement sets a high bar.
This brings me to my point about influences. I definitely get a sense of what inspired this album (especially since there’s a handy list in the album notes (including Neutral Milk Hotel, The Avalanches, Radiohead, Animal Collective)), and perhaps that’s what makes the album so accessible to me – Mainstream Alt Rock comes from a formalist and non-pandering musical heritage which is dear to me. On the other hand, this makes me one of the clearest analyzers of originality; briefly, “Storm pt. 2” is so Jeff Mangum it’s not even funny (burbling guitars and throaty, bare, male folk vocals), and “Fever” (no, not “Fever Dream,” “Fever”) again reminds me of Hospice, but this time in a way that I’d almost have to call a rip-off. All in all, I feel like the broad strokes of talent in this album lie in all the ambient segues and vocal harmonies; the lyrics are definitely not unskilled, nor is whatever narrative drives this, but maybe there would be less pressure on the music if it were left to its own devices and natural growth and not wrangled into a part of a greater conceptual whole. Maybe, again, I just needed a little more of a push to see the concept (or maybe I just didn’t get it).
It’s hard for me to pick out tracks that were truly unnecessary, there’s a pretty good grasp of musicality and pacing. The entire album is pretty, but this release is a lengthy 16 tracks… seven tracks of this material would have been a lot for me to swallow, even as a fan of both concept albums and ambient music. I’m not sure how many listeners actually get to the sonic obliteration of track 12 (“sickness”), despite its apparent importance in the narrative of the story. I guess all I’m trying to say is that concept albums are gigantic projects, and when it’s fairly early in your career you want to make people want more, not stare at your bandcamp page in obtuse confusion (not that ‘obtuse confusion’ describes my reaction to the album). I also want to see less homage to great albums (which, you know, I also like) and more originality and boldness. Broad strokes have been painted, there’s solid conceptual musical understanding here, but little personal flavor added on top of it. Or, well, more than a little, but just not enough. I could make a comment about how “Mainstream Alt Rock” in itself designates a sort of inability to define itself against other existing projects – maybe they could do with a name that more seriously represents their mystery?
Anyway, to return to the album itself, the ending of the prologue is particularly haunting and mysterious, and that feeling is re-evoked at several points during the album (really strong, idiosyncratic tracks: sunrise, sStToOrrRrrmMm, dusk, filicide). In the end, what I’m left wanting is eight tracks of the same haunting mystery, but with much clearer clues as to what the mystery *is*. Filicide, that much I understand – I’m excited for my understanding to deepen with more music from these guys!
You can download this album for however much money you want on their bandcamp.