Indie Rock Music Overlooked Classics

Overlooked Classics: Mercury Rev – Yerself Is Steam

Someone in a Facebook group asked today for recommendations of artists & albums a little like The Flaming Lips. I suggested Mercury Rev as I feel that they have material which is similar in style & intensity to each phase of The Flaming Lips discography. I think the poster was more interested in the more melancholic, Psyche Pop of the Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots-era but thought they may be interested to hear two songs which almost serve as polar opposites within the Mercury Rev discography: Chasing A Bee & Goddess On A HiWay.

Another reason I thought it would be interesting to suggest Mercury Rev to this Facebook user is that the two bands are very closely linked, sharing personnel at various parts of their careers. Mercury Rev frontman Jonathan Donahue played guitar with The Flaming Lips for around two years, appearing on the albums In a Priest Driven Ambulance and Hit to Death in the Future Head.

Chasing A Bee is the opening track from Mercury Rev’s gnarly, noisy debut album, Yerself Is Steam. It’s maybe not fair to refer to it as ‘overlooked’ per se, but I definitely feel that it deserves a higher place in the pantheon of great Indie Rock albums which we revere to this day. On one level, Chasing A Bee is a chaotic & furious assault of brutal guitar noise but, on another level, it is melodic Psyche Pop based around the hypnotically childlike melodies you’d expect from Syd Barrett or Ringo Starr. The juxtaposition between these elements is a surprisingly apt way of musically charting the experience of Psychedelic drugs. There are moments of elation & moments of horror. There are segues between the melodic Pop & harsh noise that feel like that moment when a bad trip turns into a good trip.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to describe the music of bands like Mercury Rev & The Flaming Lips in terms of psychedelic drug experiences. The Flaming Lips named one of their own compilations Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid. I think the title of this Flaming Lips compilation is an excellent description of the early Mercury Rev sound.

From Chasing A Bee, Yerself Is Steam wonders into faster, upbeat territory with Syringe Mouth, a terrifying Glam Punk stomper with shrieking backing vocals & twisted gnarly guitar patterns & feedback snaking between breakneck mechanical rhythms. This is very similar to very early Flaming Lips.

Coney Island Cyclone tones down the speed, emphasises the melodies & keeps the feedback & amp noise levels very high. This is the kind of thing which could’ve seen some chart success if it was marketed properly (& the abrupt fade out at the end was less abrupt).

Blue And Black starts with David Baker’s sinister monotone vocals following narcotically deranged nursery rhyme melodies & technicolour self harmonies. The music remains restrained for much of the first half, but you can feel the simmering menace of the creepy melodies & building noisescape. Something like a revving chainsaw appears around the 3-minute mark, threatening to send the song tumbling into a violent noise storm which it never quite does. The implicit threat of chaotic noise is almost Lovecraftian. The evil glimpsed in the shadows, or just missed, is far more psychologically terrifying than even the most well rendered CGI monsters.

Sweet Oddysee Of A Cancer Cell T’ Th’ Center Of Yer Heart is another epic Psych Rock noise fest in the vein of Chasing A Bee. This one however, is built around Johnathan Donahue’s falsetto melodies & almost Prog-ilike percussion elements. This is cinematic in scale in a way that much of their later music doesn’t quite reach. With it’s repetitive explorations of chord structures & explosions of guitar noise this could well be seen as a foundation stone, alongside Kentucky weirdos Slint, of the genre which would eventually become known as Post Rock.

Frittering, another long, cinematic jam, fades in over some clean, acoustic guitars that sound completely alien in the sonic landscape this album has painted thus far. Reverb-soaked vocals sound like they’re coming from miles away & melodic lead guitars start to appear like anarchic butterflies (or bees) frittering around the psychedelic landscape. There’s a big payoff at around 2:30, when the percussion drops in & the noisier guitars overtake the pleasant acoustic strumming in volume. From that point on, the melodic vocals are buried in a shoegazey mess of pedal noise & amp feedback. Different melodic elements surface occasionally through the melancholic murk.

Continuous Trucks And Thunder Under A Mothers Smile is a noisy skit. A blast of semaphoric bleeping, distorted radio chatter & furious guitar riffing. At 44 seconds, it’s over before you’ve properly heard it & we’re into the epic 12 minute finale.

Very Sleepy Rivers is doomy, sinister noise track. Built around hypnotically simple rhythms & melodies, it’s said to be about a serial killer, the rivers a metaphor for the calm of a serial killer & their tendency to snap, on a moments notice, into brutal, bloody violence. There’s an ebb & flow quality to Very Sleepy Rivers, which plays beautifully into the thematic imagery of rivers.

The band released a single, Car Wash Hair, which didn’t appear on the original release of this album. It was included on later reissues & on a second disc that was bundled with international releases, entitled Lego My Ego (which is available as a separate album on Spotify etc.). I’m going to include the video for Car Wash Hair here, as I feel it acts as a kind of “missing link” between the noisy, art Rock of Yerself Is Steam & the cinematic, Psyche Pop of later albums like Deserters Songs.

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