Bellowing Sun is a grand suite.
If there’s something familiar about Jaime Fennelly’s latest Mind Over Mirrors album, there’s also something new — a state of affairs that suits an artist whose music lives in the strange place where motion and stasis overlap. While last year’s Undying Color drew inspiration from the writings of John Muir and a unique American landscape, the Driftless region of Wisconsin, Bellowing Sun turns to naturalist Henry Beston and the book he wrote about his year living alone on a remote Cape Cod beach. A break from Mind Over Mirrors’ narrower beginnings, Undying Color brought Fennelly and his Indian harmonium and synths together with vocalists Janet Beveridge Bean and Haley Fohr (who also featured on 2015’s The Voice Calling), fiddler Jim Becker and drummer Jon Mueller, all of whom (minus Fohr) make repeat appearances here.
What’s new on Mind Over Mirrors’ seventh album is, in part, its scope. Commissioned as a performance piece by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Bellowing Sun is a grand suite, spanning 12 parts and 75 minutes. But even as Fennelly stretches out, exploiting the full range of the instrumental palettes available, he seems to be refining his musical vision. Perhaps there’s a fallacy out there that creating meditative, drone-soaked sounds means taking a laid-back or passive approach to music-making. But what marks this new album, in subtle contrast to Fennelly’s earlier work, is a kind of intentionality. The composer can compel listeners to get up and turn the LP over and over and over (so to speak) because he knows exactly why each glittering synth, each airy syllable and each pounding drum is there. That’s not to say that the pieces on Bellowing Sun build toward conventional narrative climaxes — Fennelly’s roots in textural, cyclical music run deep. But inside each familiar sound and gesture is a new breath of purpose and vitality.
It’s also not to say, despite the honor and validation that come with the MCA commission, that Fennelly’s ego is taking over. Whereas the guest contributions on Undying Color felt a touch novel, like someone trying out new toys, on Bellowing Sun they’re fully integrated into the whole. In fact, Fennelly says that opening his work up to Bean, Becker and Mueller is what “allow[ed him] to address really specific musical ideas that [he] want[ed] to do and kind of delegate through other people’s musical personalities and instrumentation.” It’s not uncommon for these personalities to take center stage — from Bean’s layered incantations on “Matchstick Grip” to Becker’s old-time fiddle on the stomping “Oculate Beings” to Mueller’s monster single-stroke workout on “Acrophasing.”
Speaking of Mueller’s drumming, there’s probably some truth to the suspicion that what one listener hears as Fennelly’s “intentionality” another might chalk up to the attention he’s increasingly turned toward rhythm and pulse over moods, textures and timbres. It’s true that this album takes Undying Color’s play with propulsiveness to a new level. “Matchstick Grip” provides another example, with Mueller’s mad snares-off march embedded like a bone in the mix. But there’s also his motorik beat on “Zeitgebers,” bringing the piece to its full kosmische potential, or the slippery pulse he supplies on “Talking Knots.” And Fennelly’s own playing, especially on his Oberheim SEM and OB-6 synthesizers, often puts rhythm first — see the dazzling opener “Feeding on the Flats” or “Halfway to the Zenith,” where the sequenced synth lines cut a contrast against the singers’ sustained choral exhalations. All that said, Fennelly’s rhythmic sensibility is highly repetitive, such that the rhythms on Bellowing Sun don’t so much move the music forward as set it spinning in place.
Fennelly does more than play tricks with the linear nature of rhythm — he also composes with a patience and attention to detail that afford his music great vertical depth. On tracks like “Feeding on the Flats” and “Vermillion Pink,” layered lines create polyrhythmic currents that pull the ears in opposite directions. It’s a disorienting effect, musically if not emotionally, too: While the bright complexity of “Feeding on the Flats” generates it a feeling of continual fruitful blossoming, “Vermillion Pink” is a sonic jungle dense and somehow treacherous with willfully contradictory rhythmic pathways, shadowy drones and eerie bird calls.
The nature metaphor brings us back to the beginning, to the album’s title. Bellowing Sun: A case of synesthesia or an explosion of scale? No doubt Fennelly has an ear for the poetic. But it’s also true that while we’re used to experiencing the sun as a visual object — not to mention something of a tactile one — if you could get close enough, you’d certainly hear that it makes quite a racket. Of course you can’t get close enough, which means that any talk of the sun’s sonic output requires an act of reasoning or imagination — either way, a thoroughly human effort. And it’s in these efforts to get close, to rethink or defamiliarize relationships that seem by nature fixed, that Fennelly seems interested in here.
In its live incarnation, Fennelly and company perform Bellowing Sun on a circular stage surrounded completely by audience members, while a massive zoetrope revolves overhead, reflecting a delirium of colored lights. This arrangement both emphasizes the music’s ritual elements (those trance-inducing synths and drones, Mueller’s unrelenting drumming) and draws the audience in as part of the night’s music-making community. Maybe nothing fundamental changes — perhaps at the end of the day, enclosing the performers in a ring of spectators only reiterates the conventional dynamic — but at least we’re seeing things from a new point of view.