In Greek mythology, the Muses were gods and goddesses who were so proficient in the arts and sciences that they would inspire followers to glory by their mere presence. In the modern lexicon, the word "muse" refers to a simple source of inspiration, connoting a creative force that lies beyond the normal state of consciousness.
To Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donahue, they are actually one and the same. The singer and guitarist for the upstate New York quartet has filled the group's new All Is Dream to the brim with references to mythological gods, goddesses, vampires and monsters of all sorts.
And he swears it was all the work of the Muses.
"They were in me and had to come out in some sort of way," Donahue says, adding he never saw a concept forming through such songs as "Tides of the Moon," "Nite and Fog," "Spiders and Flies" and "Hercules." "It's only over time when you're finally mastering the record that you begin to hear what people may later perceive as concepts that run through the entire album. At the time of writing I don't really think I was really aware that things were as interconnected as they even sound to me now."
It is fitting for an album about dreams and the imagery of dreams that parts of the creative process would take place on a subconscious level. If Donahue and bandmates Grasshopper, Dave Fridmann and new drummer Jeff Mercel had actually sat down and tried to map out a follow-up to 1998's much-talked-about Deserter's Songs, it might not have gone so well. Deserter's Songs is a riveting piece of otherworldly grandeur, full of fluttering bowed saw and Donahue's floaty falsetto. All Is Dream actually sticks to the Deserter's formula -- a first for any Rev album since 1993's Boces followed the blueprint the band created on 1991's Yerself Is Steam -- but it packs even more symphonic grandeur than Deserter's and, at times, the screech-rock kick of the early records.
Album opener "The Dark Is Rising" finds Donahue at his most tender, singing of dreams gone bad, until the strings kick in and take the song near the same territory tread by the Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight" (or the soundtrack to this year's World Series, if you prefer). Remarkably, and to the band's credit, the song loses little of its intimacy in the process. On "Chains," the big, booming drums behind the strings fill the air so completely that they evoke images of Aerosmith's Joey Kramer pounding away with mallets during that orchestral MTV-favorite rendition of "Dream On." (But, really, in a good way.)
The Rev finally got a taste of the big time on its last U.S. tour, 1999's summer arena jaunt with R.E.M. that exposed Buffalo, New York's longtime psych-pop staples to thousands of new fans. Now, All Is Dream gives the band the sonic firepower to saturate the arenas, which isn't a bad thing if you ask Donahue.
"Zeppelin played arenas. I like Led Zeppelin," he says gruffly. "Neil Young played arenas, John Lennon played arenas, Frank Sinatra played arenas. I got nothin' against arenas."
Donahue's supreme confidence isn't so surprising when set against the backdrop of the group's ambitious past, and the length to which it's always gone to be more than just another psychedelic rock band. The group started in Buffalo in the late '80s, and it found early inspiration in avant-garde film. Its first projects as a band were developing soundtracks for abstract films, including the band members' own University of Buffalo student projects. "We simply found nature films or more abstract films -- like Stan Brakhage -- more inspiring than initially trying to sit down to write the three-minute pop songs," Donahue says.
Three of the group's original members -- guitarist Grasshopper (born Sean Mackowiak), flutist Susanna Thorpe and original vocalist David Baker -- studied at Buffalo under Tony Conrad, hailed along with La Monte Young and Terry Riley as the father of modern minimalism for, among other things, his work in Young's experimental Theatre of Eternal Music. Conrad's work and teachings focused on the isolated elements of sound, such as timbre and texture, that weren't exactly in vogue during the Brit-pop heyday of American college rock in the late '80s/early '90s.
"A lot of the things that Tony did with the violins and the viola, the drones and stuff," Donahue says, "while I don't think we ever considered ourselves that avant-garde, it certainly brought a different perspective to the music we were attempting to make early on, that within a somewhat straightforward chord progression, there could lie something a little bit off-kilter, without just sounding like you threw in the kitchen sink."
Unfortunately, the kitchen sink is exactly what some people thought of the band's early sound -- frazzle-fried to perfection on the jewel of a debut, Yerself Is Steam. The album landed them a deal with Sony and a slot on 1993's Lollapalooza installment, where they caused such a ruckus that they actually got kicked off the tour, their soundman dragged offstage in a headlock for making too damn much noise. With Baker's devil-may-care antics and stream-of-consciousness baritone and Thorpe's pied-piper flute marches competing with Grasshopper and Donahue's art-damaged guitar squall, the combustible band was as prone to disaster as it was to off-kilter brilliance.
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After a period of well-documented turmoil -- rumor has it Donahue once tried to gouge out Grasshopper's eye with a spoon while on an airplane -- Baker left the band after Boces, and Thorpe split after 1995's See You on the Other Side. Under the aegis of Fridmann, who's become a high-profile indie-rock super-producer -- recording albums by Sparklehorse and Mogwai, as well as every Flaming Lips record since 1990 -- Deserter's Songs constituted a major shift in the band's sound. The substitution of the singing saw for the flute as the instrument du jour was the most cosmetic change, but the near total absence of noisy dissonance was the most drastic one. Grasshopper's wailing noise blasts reappear on All Is Dream, most notably on the sublime "Lincoln's Eyes," reenergizing Rev fans who might have been as put off by Deserter's Songs as old-school Flaming Lips fans have been by the replacement of drummer Stephen Drozd's kit with a tape.
"We don't look ever to divorce ourselves from those early records and say, 'Well, that was then,' and we weren't really trying like we are now," says Donahue, whose former band (he was a full-fledged Flaming Lip from 1990-92) seems to have done just that. "There's a lot on those early records that we love, and without them Deserter's and certainly All Is Dream wouldn't have been possible. For us, they're just a long series of experiments, learning experiences. I suppose we just change as people, and you find new challenges, sound-wise, texture-wise. There are threads that run through all of our records. I don't really give it too much thought of how we change as much as, can we change, do we change?"
For Donahue, the wonderfully peculiar wail of the singing saw, an instrument that dates back to vaudeville and before, was a catalyst that helped transform the soundscapes in his head into an aural reality. The instrument's fairy-tale quality wedged itself into the singer's subconscious, providing the spark that unleashed all of the mythological Muses that make All Is Dream such a delightful fantasia.
"I don't think it was conscious to leave one [instrument] behind for the other," he says. "You just always get interested in something else, find another sound that seems to come closer to what's in your mind."