Album Review: Mount Eerie—“Sauna”

By James Li

The Pacific Northwest, according to Phil Elverum, is like Norway crossed with Japan. It’s not just the wet pine trees or the affinity for salmon, coffee and tea, but the sense of nature worship that connects these places. Elverum named his recording project Mount Eerie after a mountain near his hometown of Anacortes, and his latest album, Sauna, is strongly tied to Elverum’s home state of Washington and themes of “Vikings and Zen” – in other words, influences from Norway and Japan.

Phil Elverum considers fellow Washington residents Wolves in the Throne Room to be one of his most similar contemporaries. Mount Eerie is a lo-fi folk project and Wolves a black metal band, but they share similar philosophies: go back to the land and take it back to basics. The members of Wolves live on a farm in Olympia and play campfire concerts. Elverum himself lived alone in a cabin in northern Norway once, and recorded Sauna analog at the Unknown, an abandoned wooden church in Anacortes that Elverum bought and converted into a studio. In fact, “Boat” opens with bursts of blastbeats and heavily distorted tremolo guitar, and could be mistaken for something by Wolves.

Album art for Sauna

Album art for Sauna

Elverum’s references to Vikings and Zen aren’t flippant either. Both “Books” and “This” make references to the medieval North Sea that the Vikings dominated. “Books” transposes a galloping metal riff onto an acoustic guitar, as Elverum shouts: “I tear the North Sea!” The track abruptly ends, and flutes and organs enter the mix on the following track, “This”, reprising Elverum’s words: “I tear in dreams across the North Sea” – Elverum’s imagery of slicing the air with a sword and marauding the North Sea are the product of a vivid imagination.

The Zen poetry in Sauna is harder to spot, though. In a Tumblr post, Elverum explained that while his music deals with nature, there’s very little separating mountains and rivers from houses and cars. On “Dragon”, Elverum sings about a roaring dragon in the sky, as the sound of an airplane engine hums in the background. And on “Emptiness”, Elverum’s lyrics read like a koan: “I see you, we are two black holes in a vast night / A van in neutral rolling down a hill unoccupied.” Elverum calls for “more and more” emptiness, but his emptiness isn’t sad, it’s introspective and comforting.

The search for comfort in solitude keeps coming back on Sauna. A sauna is a small chamber of heat in the wintery Nordic landscape, after all. Elverum might not have intended it, but I’m reminded of the Scandinavian concept of hygge: feeling cozy despite the freezing temperatures, bitter winds, and long nights. And the scale of the songs on Sauna alternates between intimate warmth and cold vastness – from softly-strummed acoustic guitar to howling drones.

The opening track, “Sauna”, and “Spring”, which comes near the end of the album, play with this dynamic the most. The muted and creaking drones on “Sauna” sound they’re coming from and on “Spring”, they’re cavernous and distorted. There’s even a lot of musical diversity on Sauna’s short interludes: “(something)” features repetitively pulsing percussion, “Turmoil” has Elverum speak-sing over a low-key acoustic strummer, and “Planets” mashes together solipsistic musings with a languid guitar line.

Even though Sauna is less than an hour long – short for a double album – there’s an astonishing amount of musical diversity and sense of scale. “Books” sounds like a tribute to The Books and “(something)” to Steve Reich, while other moments are reminiscent of Wolves in the Throne Room, My Bloody Valentine, Low, or Sunn O))). It might be the most ambitious and hi-fi Mount Eerie album yet, as Elverum adds drones, female choirs, and organ to his songs. If winter has you cooped up inside then Sauna might be the perfect album to listen to. It really does live up to its title – it asks you to be naked and vulnerable, it’ll get a little weird sometimes, but its warmth will shelter you from the cold outside. (P.W. Elverum & Sun)

Listen: “Sauna”

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