Image: Tom Le Bon
Think of political heavy music and you think of explicitly anti-establishment anthems like ‘War Pigs’ or ‘Killing In The Name’ – tracks that pick a target and shout about it so there can be no mistake. In that sense, it would seem odd to call Mountain Caller’s debut record The Truthseeker an overtly political album, given that its epic fantasy narrative is told largely though instrumentals alone, but there can be no doubt that its story is a feminist allegory once you have a member of the band lay out the journey for you in full.
“It’s set in a strange, fantastical world, but it’s very much anchored in ideas and themes that directly concern us as people here and now,” bassist El Reeve tells Astral Noize. Instead of adopting punk’s in-your-face antagonism, the trio prefer to approach sociopolitical issues in a more poetic way, one that has more in common with science fiction’s long-standing tradition of allegory, making a profound point that resonates by taking you on a poignant voyage you can connect to in a deeper – if less direct – way.
The band create a staggering sense of scope through a dynamic combination of post-rock, doom and prog that’s held together by keen songwriting knowhow. The trio’s touchstones are clear (Sabbath, Russian Circles, Rush, Mogwai) but they never linger on one thing long enough for the record to feel overly familiar. For El, though, non-music inspirations have been just as important as the bands they draw from. “We didn’t set out to sound a certain way,” she explains. “We are just what we three humans sound like in musical form I suppose! In terms of inspiration all I can say is our own experiences of life itself and our need to create, cinema, graphic novels and other literature, and of course bands we love.”
It’s clear that Mountain Caller’s three members thrive off a certain shared connection, one that only enhances their ability to create together. “It’s like we’ve all known each other our whole lives,” exclaims El. She and guitarist Claire Simson may indeed have been friends for years, meeting through mutual friends and instantly bonding over shared passions and life experiences (“it was like standing in front of this ‘other me’”), but it was only after El’s hardcore/noise band Econo went on indefinite hiatus that the pair decided it was time to form a project together. The band was completed by Max Maxwell, who was the only respondent to a tweet looking for a drummer. “I will never get over how lucky we were,” says El. “Not just because he’s such a phenomenal drummer and musician, but because he’s one of my best friends in the world now and I know Claire feels the same.”
The first meet-up went exceedingly well, the new band beginning with a cover of ‘Seek And Destroy’ but soon finding themselves jamming and talking fervently about the bands and records they loved. With the pieces now in the right place, the band set about forging their debut, and true to form, the result was anything but low-key. The Truthseeker is a voyage of a record – a concept album about a nameless Protagonist searching for answers in an alien landscape.
“It’s a kind of Odyssean epic,” El tells us. ”It’s about a woman who wakes up with no memory in the rubble and ash of a devastated city. On the album, we join her at the point of her journey in which she’s crossing a desert where the sun never quite sets. She travels through all kinds of different places and narrowly survives the dangers she faces. There’s a turning point during ‘I Remember Everything’ in which she’s flooded with fractured returning memories, and is eventually able to make sense out of them. She rediscovers her identity and her forgotten, raw and uncontrollable power and, by the end of the record in ‘Dreamspirals’, is alone and trying to learn to tame it and use it.”
Sci-fi stories are not new to heavy music, of course, but their ability to enhance a record’s scope has anything but waned. In the case of The Truthseeker, this story calls to mind some of the best and most iconic sci-fi by reflecting our own world despite simultaneously offering a degree of escapism. “We’re finally entering a time in our civilisation when the arts are at last beginning to include different experiences of life and perspectives – by which I mean those of women, LGBTQ people, Black people and POC, and disabled people,” says El. “Our experiences of the world are all different to those who have the most power, and I think it’s vital, enriching and exciting for all of humanity that now these stories, histories and perspectives are starting to be told. As with anything to do with equality and equity, this doesn’t mean anyone else has to have less. It just means we all get to enjoy more. It’s a rare win-win situation.
“We are able to write from the perspective of women and queer people, which, in case anyone wonders, Max was really excited to do. I believe his words when we first discussed it were ‘fuck yeah!’. The Protagonist is intended to be a sort of everywoman that anyone could imprint themselves upon. Her lack of ‘voice’ and lost identity, and her crawling out of a ruined civilisation, her journey facing horrifying foes, gathering a better understanding of her power and re-making herself into something new, free of the old ways, hungry for change – these are all symbols of a woman’s lived experience, but with the hope and change and access to power that not all of us actually have. We already have big plans for the second album when it comes to her further development.”
Without vocals, the story is told through the emotional beats of the music. Each song reflects a different chapter of the Protagonist’s experiences, with the band aiming to “paint images in your mind,” El explains, with the hope that you feel what the Protagonist feels and see what she sees.
“Without lyrics, this film-like yet unwritten story (and the music itself) became our language,” the bassist begins. “We all have very visual brains. One of my own biggest influences for what I was seeing in my mind when writing were things that also inspired the album artwork. The covers of 1970s sci-fi novels by the likes of Bruce Pennington, who painted covers for Asimov and Herbert and others, and then graphic novels like Prophet – a truly weird, wild and original imagined world. Some of my favourite films are the ones which also take you on a really distinctive visual journey.”
Though pacing and atmosphere are crucial to any band, particularly in a genre like post-rock, Mountain Caller payed especially keen attention to these elements when writing, the result being an album that stands on its own merits whilst also being augmented by an underlying narrative that magnifies the sense of scope and the impact of the album’s most dramatic moments. “Whilst creating sound that washes over you, or unsettles you, or confuses you, we also wanted to make sure there were periods of huge riffs or jammy delights you can bang your head to,” reveals El. “For me, that’s especially important when you’re flouting traditional song structures as well. Even if we never play the same section twice, we want listeners to be able to lock in and enjoy it all.”
It is this approach to songwriting that has created an album that feels so vast and meticulously formed despite also entailing some of the best periods of progressive stoner rock jamming since Elder’s Omens back in April (so about two years in 2020 time). That The Truthseeker does both so masterfully makes it a truly impressive debut that should not be overlooked, and Mountain Caller a band whose potential should not be understated.
Touring for the album has of course been postponed till next year (a socially-distanced release show at The Black Heart was put back to January due to Lockdown 2.0), but the band seem optimistic about the future. “We are very excited and grateful to have been booked for some amazing festivals next year, which we really hope go ahead without a virus-related hitch. You’ll be able to see us at StrangeForms Festival in Leeds, Portals in London, and the wondrous ArcTanGent. Just like every music fan in the world right now, we are climbing the walls waiting to go to gigs as much as to play them. We’re looking forward to gigging and touring the album, and continuing to write for our second. It’s early days, but we’ve got lots of ideas!”
The Truthseeker is out now on New Heavy Sounds. Order here.
Words: George Parr