A strange progression has been apparent in Jon Mueller‘s work, picking up steam in the last few releases. He’s always been a percussionist, and his earlier albums concentrated on “pure” percussive experiments. In what we might term his “middle” period, heavy doses of guitar were added, and on Non-Fiction, chanted and shouted voice. His participation in the orchestrated Death Blues landed him on our year-end charts in 2014. Then there was a bit of a retreat, as A Magnetic Center demonstrated further elaboration on the themes of Non-Fiction. Here the voices swarmed like bees over repetitive drums, finally bursting forth a cappella at the end of Side A. Tongues launches from this point, reuniting Mueller with some of his Death Blues collaborators.
The first thing one notes while listening to Tongues is its clarity in comparison to other albums in the artist’s discography. The second is that the tribal force remains fully intact. The third is a question: is percussion still percussion when the drums are removed? The answer is a resounding yes, as many a cappella groups have proven with the presence of a vocal percussionist. It’s not always about hitting things; it’s more often about rhythm, which makes the name of the label (Rhythmplex) especially apt.
The growing vocal acrobatics of Side A are reminiscent of Dead Can Dance. Shimmering textures are created with additional vocals from Cory Allen and instrumentation from William Ryan Fritch. As the layers increase, the music rises to a fever-pitch, begging for release, which finally arrives at 8:28 with handclaps and exhalations. From this point, the trance begins to insert itself again, leading to a shift only 70 seconds later ~ a short period in a long track. The next, and most effective, arrives at 14:50, returning to the origins of the piece, repeating the line introduced at 00:37, yet without drums. It would be interesting to hear a radio edit of this piece, “How You Look When You’re Not Looking”, if only to push the shifts closer to one another. While this would obliterate the track’s trance element, the move might invite radio play or even club spins.
The chimes of “What I Thought You Said” invite meditation, and indeed the entire project comes across as a monastic exercise, transcendent in timbre and form. More forward movement is present in this piece than lateral movement, the drums almost disappearing from the consciousness like a blind spot as the other forces surge forth. That is until 11:58, the track’s only “drop” outside of the finale. This section highlights bongos and sinister, dueling, whispered tongues, and makes any association of the cover with the 1978 film Magic seem appropriate.
Speaking in tongues is comforting to some and frightening to others, and Mueller captures both angles. It’s difficult to predict where he’ll head from here, but that’s the fun of this trajectory; it’s more of a loop than a curve. (Richard Allen)