ALBUM REVIEW: Jon Mueller – ‘Family Secret’: an immersive drone palimpsest

A MUSICIAN? Sound artist? Explorer? Curator? – who may be better known to you as a member of the curious, cerebral and quite ace Volcano Choir, in which he lined up alongside Justin Vernon of Bon Iver to push the alt.rock envelope on two excellent albums, Unmap and Repave, Wisconsin’s Jon Mueller is always seeking new confluences of thought and sound.

That brace of excursions may be his most commercial work of recent times, if you care to cast that particular metric across it; but it’s by no means his most potent.

In recent times he’s also overseen the mantric, chanting disciplines of Death Blues, who sought to look at that universal final curtain through the medium of propulsive drone blues. Check them for a wholly different and enveloping vibe, unblinking and unafraid.

He’s now releasing a wholly submersive quartet of pieces gathered together as Family Secret, which explore drone, percussion, and in a more abstracted creative catharsis, changes in lighting as a spur to bring forth ideas – and the subject of divorce, and how that can rent and jag a brain, even beyond the immediate parties involved.

Jon employed a technique he developed while finding his creative feet as a teenager- changing the ambient circumstances in which the creative spark happens.

In 1990, whilst at college, Jon began experimenting with his domestic lighting set-up: in order to create ‘new homes’, as it were; and in some ways, new incarnations of himself.

He explains: “One day I came home and went straight to the bathroom, turning only its light on. I noticed it lit up the space in a dim, ambient way.

“Each day after, I’d come home and experiment. I had previously turned on the kitchen and living room lights, lighting everything brightly, but alternate sources inspired me to imagine living in a different place – even a better version of the place where I lived.

“I imagined different personas, characters that might inhabit these new environs and moods.” It’s a subtle trick on one’s own self that we all play every evening, and there’s no doubt it creates a new mood, a new ambience – in Jon’s case from which to, well, in turn forge new ambience.

To this end, for Family Secret Jon wrote, recorded, and edited under various abstracted lighting conditions, leading him into almost hallucinatory states. And in the half-night, his very own noir film set, he began considering with the past, especially his family: “The titling, approach and mood of the record have much to do with the nearly occult effect that various divorces in my family have had in my life,” he explains.

“Unearthing heavy mysteries can be revelatory and haunting.”

A further aesthetic angle comes in the photography of Niki Feijen, whose brilliant portrayal of abandonment and urbex scenes is employed both in the album artwork and the video, adding a ghostliness, a chill; perhaps also a further pointer to those familial ghosts in Jon’s attic. What we can say, is these twined aesthetic approaches contribute much to a thoughtful and subsuming album.

Jon_Mueller, photographed by Stephan Anderson-Story

The four tracks herein are mostly, necessarily, longform, and much like say, Jim O’Rourke’s essay for guitars in various states, Bad Timing, work as a quarter of movements within the whole rather than as four separate songs. They have commonality in a hypnogogic state, a deep chill and multivalent textures – which, like an igloo – you’ll find strangely warming once you surrender.

We begin in the chill of “Whose Emptiness”, a rhetorical question, maybe; it’s a chilling electronic wind getting through all those shattered windows, through the floorboards. The wind abates to darker percussive shearing, as if someone is shifting sheet metal about down in the basement; there’s gong-like qualities to some of the shifting sonic hinterland. It’ll sound beautiful on vinyl; a real speaker-trembler. We’re very much in the territory of Thomas Köner here; the sub-arctic weft of Nuuk or Teimo/Permafrost. It’s dreamlike, a house you return to in lucid REM. What Max Richter called a memoryhouse, maybe, a place where old mementoes are mentally stored. It pulls off the trick of suggesting almost hair-raising emptiness while at the same time being full of sound.

“Black Glass” – the darkest mirror – pulls us back from that bone-chill and into a undulating drone whose lead thrust sings and resonates like a finger on the rim of a wineglass. There’s still those deeper surges, unsettling and discombobulating, but there’s a feel of the outside world to this one, more so: maybe you’ve made your way to the window, can see a landscape under snow. The claustrophobia of the opener has lifted just a touch. All that high sustain burrows gloriously under your skin and runs through your veins like sonic mercury.

At just over four minutes, “Ignited Hands” serves as an interlude, should there be a need for such a thing; in which, if you bear with my analogy, we descend to that cellar, glory in the swirl and cleave of sweeping, grainy, percussive grind, as if cymbals had grown elephantine. There’s a delicious and sudden stepping up into ringing tone, with the gentlest decay gradient ushering the track towards the silence from which everything springs.

The final piece of the four was also the lead single a week or two back: “Welcome”, which you can delight in below. We’ve embedded the video, composed by Kaveh Soofi from the photography of Niki Feijen.

Jon says: “I’m always excited to see what Kaveh will come up with for the videos we’ve made. For Family Secret, pairing his work with Niki Feijen’s desolate photographs doubled my anticipation. Seeing these visuals combined with the audio totally captures many of the ideas I had with this project.

“What was the story, what went wrong, and what sense can be made in what’s left behind? How can the past speak in the moment? Regardless of my thoughts, I think there’s a real sense to take away from the video, however one feels it.”

And combined with the textural beauty of “Welcome”, you get a powerful emotional reaction. Jon isn’t afraid to let the tones breathe, explore every nuance of their attack, their decay, with all manner of the percussive and neo-percussive tools – cymbals, singing bowls, gongs, more – given centre stage over a chill backdrop of drone, still like winter air. As an album closer it’s truly beautiful, with a creeping, cold edge to keep you alert.

Family Secret really is a journey of deep interiority: it’s implicit that it be served fresh, after dark, suitably lit with no distractions. It’s not necessarily and easy ride – but then, neither is life; it’s very deep, will reveal more and more; is possibly, as literary theory would have it, a neurotic text, in that it invites you to build it mentally for yourself, make your own inferences. It’s almost a palimpsest for your brain to write upon. Clever, eerie and beautiful, it’s an album that will continue to reward you.

Jon Mueller’s Family Secret will be released by American Dreams Records on digital, CD and vinyl formats on January 22nd; there’s even five test pressings, for you wax exclusivists. It’s available to pre-order now over at Bandcamp, or direct from American Dreams.

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