I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: one of the reasons I love doing this column is for the chance to get a bigger sense of how different types of music is made. With metal, it has its moments where the boundaries get pushed, and the genre is certainly no stranger to innovators, but oftentimes you need to go pretty far out there to get into some really creative artistic processes. Even as far out as we have gone, I have never encountered a process quite as unique as Jon Mueller used on his newest release Family Secret.
Jon Mueller is many things to many people. Perhaps best known as a member of Mind Over Mirrors and Volcano Choir, the experimental percussionist also has a bevy of solo albums under his belt, as well as a curiosity shop in his native Wisconsin. A man trained in many artistic disciplines, Mueller has always had a keen sense of the connection between the various senses, and on Family Secret, he reaches back to a creative technique that he began developing in the 90’s that seeks to stretch that connection to its breaking point. While in college, he discovered that manipulating the lighting in his house put him in different creative headspaces, allowing him to come up with alternate, completely imaginary rooms in his house that only the light could reveal and even create alternate personas of himself that occupied these rooms. On Family Secret, Mueller again utilized that technique, pushing himself into almost hallucinatory states of distraction, exhaustion and discomfort and seeing what came out to the surface. From there, the lighting inspired him to create his ethereal and unsettling compositions, utilizing only various percussion instruments like gongs, singing bowls, cymbals and drums. As if that wasn’t enough, the mood changes from the lighting led him to introspection on the nature of divorce, of all things, so there is also that thread running through the pieces. It’s truly unreal how anyone could possibly even think of a process like that, but Mueller not only does it, but he does it with style. Listening to Family Secret, even once through, allows you to really feel the connection between sight, sound and memory.
Family Secrets is truly an immersive experience. The four tracks span almost forty minutes, but the time goes by really quickly when listening to it. Honestly, it puts me into a trance in the best way possible. You might imagine that an album solely composed on percussion instruments might be understated in terms of dynamics, and you’re right, to an extent. Singing bowls and rolling cymbals make up the majority of the soundscape, and while the songs are long and flowing, there are pops of texture that bring you in and out of the space. A lot of instruments I can’t quite identify, but sounds like heavy breathing and growling bring the ambience to heights, while the gentle hum of the bowls returns you back to the shadows. In case you couldn’t tell from the subject matter the pieces are tied to, this is an album full of tension, discomfort and unease. It’s a deeply meditative listen, but there is a lot to be uncomfortable with. Still, it’s easy to sink into, and before you know it, you might get lost in the world that Mueller has created. It’s incredible to think that the execution could be so high on a concept so grand, but it really is. You feel everything you are supposed to feel when you listen.
Full disclosure: I really wanted to throw myself into the concept, so each time I listened to Family Secrets, I turned different lights around me on and off. I gotta say, it really does open up new avenues for listening and experiencing the album. It truly amazes me that there are endless ways to be creative, and as long as there are people in the world like Jon Mueller, the world will never cease to overflow with art. There’s a lot to be disheartened about, but that certainly is a bright spot in all this.