Baltimore musician Dan Deacon has long been interested in nature, what it may be “feeling” at any given time, and what it would be like for humans to be able to communicate with the natural world.
As an electronic musician and producer, these ideas often clash with his knowledge of the cold, digital music space, but it’s a sound that he has been honing his entire career on critically acclaimed albums such as 2009’s Bromst, 2015’s Glass Rifter, and the score to the 2016 documentary Rat Film, which explored racism and poverty in Baltimore through the lens of the city’s rat infestation.
Sitting under the trees in his backyard and trying to meditate, Deacon told Domino, his record label, that it was initially a process of “kicking and screaming.” After reading David Lynch’s book, Catching the Big Fish, he felt that his ideas for the record were more in perspective, but this push and pull of the music’s calm yet erratic behavior is still very much in flux.
“Becoming a Mountain,” the intro to Mystic Familiar, is highly reminiscent of early Animal Collective, specifically their album Feels, sending any 2000’s indie rock junkie into nostalgic bliss once Deacon starts whispering. Like anyone kicking and screaming through the idea of meditating; however, the sound doesn’t persist. His high-pitched vocals and swirlingly busy arpeggios immediately show face on “Sat by a Tree” and the following “Arp I-III” interludes.
Part of it might have to do with his use of Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies,” a deck of cards that help musicians decide what to do next when experimenting in the studio. Phrases on the cards vary from techniques such as “use filters” or “distorting time,” to the more abstract suggestion of “question the heroic approach.”
The concepts of solemn meditation and random experimentation don’t often exist in tandem. It might not make for the easiest or most coherent listen, with cinematic pieces like “Weeping Birch” wedged in between the bleeps and bloops of “Fell Into the Ocean,” but it’s interesting to hear Deacon try to imagine communicating with supernatural creatures, which he calls “mystic familiars,” and how his interpretation changes over the course of the record.
It kind of all smashes together in the finale, “Bumble Bee Crown King,” seemingly at the polar opposite of where we began on “Becoming a Mountain.” It might not feel as powerfully coherent as it did at the start, but it forms pretty well to Deacon’s journey.
“It’s only an experiment if you do not know the outcome,” he explains in The Making of ‘Mystic Familiar’ video, “and I try to put that into my work as much as possible.”
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