The first two parts of a planned triptych (the third, Off, will release in January 2013), Markus Mehr’s In and Out are studies in extreme contrast. Effective, listen-worthy contrast. In is the comparatively quieter of the two, made up of two long tracks. ‘Komo’ is built on a simple string phrase that patiently repeats itself while Mehr folds in new layers and levels. On top of that, it’s subjected to Mehr’s sonic surgery. The sound drops out or muffles, gets cut up and reordered. There is a stretch around the 16-minute mark that is pure, unexpected fun–more so in headphones. The timing is perfect–right when you think you’re just in the midst of some minimalist, unchanging construct, it changes. Often, I will say, in quite unexpected ways. Until the very end–which is unbelievably potent–Mehr keeps that base phrasing absolutely consistent. This track gets better each time I listen. The depth is delightful to explore. “Ostinato” rises slowly, as “Komo” does, but from the start it’s roughened up by a crackle of static. Melancholic strings come up beneath it and, as before, the sound builds up across time, developing into the same sort of base phrasing from the previous track. Again, the phrase stands staunchly against Mehr’s sound-additions. The trick here comes when Mehr begins sliding a totally different tune, on brass, under the developed flow. But it comes and goes like something you half-hear when you’re almost asleep. The static returns at the end–a nice touch.
On differs from In in two basic ways. First, it storms straight in on an industrial-grade grind with ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.’ A big hit of percussion and raw distortion greet you, ushering you into Mehr’s mix of field recordings, drones and treatment. Visitors coming from In understand right away that this is a different place. Second, the tracks are quicker, their impact landing sooner and the moment passing in completion within a few minutes. Thus, Mehr packs a lot into those frames, and it’s broadly varied. A jazz-trumpet loop hides under the slow drones in ‘Flaming Youth,’ its smoothness contrasting perfectly with the clicks and buzzes around it; another works as the base of ‘Duck Becomes Swan,’ holding its own against clashing and crashing metallics and buzzsaw hums; rapid-fire clips of Greek folk music trip through the disorienting ‘Olympia'; Gregorian chant and field recordings of conversation intertwine in ‘Monks on the Beach.’ One of the things I enjoy about Mehr is how he infuses his work with unexpected things that border on a sense of humor. ‘Only for A While’ stands out against the tracks before it by coming in on quiet synth-strings, a simple ambient flow. You get about four minutes of that before a quick burble of sound momentarily corrupts the the flow, as if to say, “You didn’t think it was going to be that simple, did you?” With few extra augmentations, the flow then continues on its way. On is in some ways a more complex listen than In, although both have much to say and certainly enough sonic elements to say it well. Mehr rides the edge of experimental music without falling into a too-abstract space. His explorations are tethered by identifiable structures, but the farthest reaches of his intentions pack enough allure and interest to bring you to them and hold you there. In and On together leave me anticipating how Mehr will complete his triptych. Time will tell.