by Dylan Pennell (@dylan_pennell)
It’s hard, year after year, to keep having to hear the multitude of naysayers echo through my brain saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” time and time again. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties when I finally found the conviction to say “I do, goddamit. I do judge a book by its cover.” Of course, before you start pelting me with stones, I want to let you all know that I mean this in the most literal sense. Covers - while not always - are often chosen by the artists to act as the “eyes of the soul” to the record itself. For most of us who spent time rummaging through record or cd bins in the halcyon days of the nineties, cover art meant a great deal. After spending countless hours flipping from album to album, there would always be album covers that stuck in your head, piqued your curiosity, and downright gnawed at your wallet until finally you buckled and picked it up. Some are warm and inviting, some calculated, glossy, and cold, and some seductively enigmatic. Artists might not always cop to the importance of cover art and its impressionistic capabilities, but it’s always there, helping to coerce a series of colors, images, and emotions from then on inextricable from the music itself.
Adorning the cover of Michigan psych-rockers Heaters third album Matterhorn is a pastoral picture of the titular mountain in the Swiss Alps, girdled in all its glory by a sea of grey. The power of the image itself loses some of the scenic grandeur via the truncated calculations of tasteful post-modern design, but the sense of mystery still permeates the album, well before ever hearing a moment of it. Matterhorn itself suggests spaciousness, loss, frigidity, and isolation and yet the bucolic image warms simultaneously, reminding of all the freedom, beauty, and awe conjured while we bury ourselves online. And frankly, analysis aside, album art can make or break an album for me, but luckily, Matterhorn and Matterhorn collude to offer an immersive and exciting vision, equal parts terror and awe.
Heaters, who have worked at an admirable pace of an album a year since 2015’s Holy Water Pool, have been dealing in a brand of reverb drenched psychedelia that’s felt indebted to Tame Impala’s now underrated Innerspeaker. Both bands lose themselves in their effects pedals, starting a fire in the backyard and then spending the entire albums swatting and trying to control the smoke and embers flying from their guitars. Reverb acts as the objective correlative for isolation, like a solitary stranger playing and singing in a long lonely hallway in an abandoned hospital. Where past releases let the band use those familiar resonances to help add a sheen of introspection to otherwise rambunctious rock tunes, Matterhorn trades in the anxious riffing and Dave Fridmann-isms of productions past and instead opts to double down on shimmering psychedelia and motorik drums, not entirely making good on the dichotomy of the artwork, but paying plenty of lip service to the sense of contained grandiosity hinted at there.
The music here isn’t something to ingest or analyze so much as it is to wash over you. Like the most cleansing and transformative of trips, the opening chords of “Thanksgiving I” seem to soak into every nook of the body, offering a comforting world, built on the aforementioned themes of loneliness and isolation, but feeling conciliatory in execution. Both “Thanksgiving I” and “Thanksgiving II” are built on the same dynamics, but the latter seems to grab ahold of the band and tether their loser rhythms to a motorik beat. Despite the drive of “Thanksgiving II,” it still feels like it occupies the same headspace as part I, never too interested in straying from the pre-established dynamics. Before part II is over it demonstrates its devotion to the aesthetic by briefly morphing back into part I, as if to remind us that this band is crafting something grander than they have in the past.
The sequencing on this record is yet another element to herald for its mastery of the form. “Black Bolt” keeps the kraut-like energy in a knotty and mind-stuffing bass line and just when you think that you’ve had enough wall of sound, the band brings it back down to earth with “Bronze Behavior.” On the latter track, the band convey their range and ability to take the mountainous sound of previous tracks and, without losing any momentum or scale, choose to focus on something else entirely. Where the first three tracks seem designed for the listener to get an idea of how grand of a picture the band is creating, “Bronze Behavior” shows the band retraining our gaze, asking us to look at some of the more subtle elements of their sound. Again, we’re back to that cover art, but, this time we aren’t focusing on the harrowing violence of its twisted peak, but instead averting our gaze and choosing to focus on the eddy of grey clouds, in all of its quiet, brewing elegance.
Throughout, seemingly in an effort to get you to invest in their world of swirling sonics, the band rarely change up the dynamics of the songs, nor do they give you any discernible lyrics or melodies to cling to, but somehow none of this manages to ever feel stale. Chalk it up to the album’s short runtime, maybe. Or give the band credit for knowing exactly how to give you just enough sweet guitar melody and enough reverb to let yourself get lost in the sound itself. Listening to this record doesn’t seem to be about sitting in anticipation of “Kingsday’s” Kinks-indebted guitar figures or the moment when “Hochelaga” lets a twister rip right through the song’s conclusion, sucking up every layer of the song and bringing it crashing back to the canvas, rather it’s about letting the scenery of the music itself refresh and reinvigorate.
In the end, this record couldn’t have found a more fitting title or picture to grace their cover. Within the concise 37 minutes, this album will share your earspace, managing to conjure up majestic, sky-scraping collages of sound, but never once do they lose the plot. Each song focuses on a singular idea and carries it through to its logical conclusion. They have the ability to reign in the gossamer-like layering of lonely guitars, unrelenting bass hums, and tenacious drumming without ever sounding like they are over-reaching or indulgent. Much like the image of Matterhorn adorning the album’s cover, the band have take all the majesty inherent in their sound and packaged it into something manageable and modern, epic, but economical, and in doing so lose none of the impact of their mountainous talent.