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Photo by Saverio Truglia

Mind Over Mirrors Make Ambient Music for Mystics

Will Schube

The morphing Chicago ensemble that's formed around Jaime Fennelly is beautifully unpredictable—as his new album 'Bellowing Sun' and a new single "Vermillion Pink" prove.

Photo by Saverio Truglia

Jaime Fennelly is unpredictable. His music as Mind Over Mirrors is mercurial and mystical, effervescent and contemplative. The evolution of his project from a one-man drone experiment to the full band experience it is now has spanned six records in seven years, culminating in last year’s expansive breakthrough, Undying Color. His first records, pure experiments exploring the interplay of synthesizers and harmoniums, were insular, highly mysterious, and distant cousins of the synthesizer music pioneered by bands like Harmonia during the kosmische scene.

With this skeleton firmly applied, Fennelly expanded outward, turning Undying Color into a full-band experience. That record was a sharp left turn, trading in the meditative calm of his early works for something boisterous and aggressive—art pop for the spiritually inclined. That album revolved around themes of nature and isolation, with Fennelly concocting many of the tracks in a cabin located in Southwest Wisconsin. One of his greatest strengths is his ability to convey themes and emotions through his mostly instrumental work, relying on expressive playing and a near synesthetic approach to songwriting. His newest record, Bellowing Sun, out April 6 on Paradise of Bachelors, is again a record indebted to a hyper-specific theme, with Fennelly turning his and his band’s attention towards artificial light and the way it affects our perception as humans.

Using author Henry Beston’s naturalist manifesto, The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod (1928), as a source of inspiration, Bellowing Sun is an examination of life and decay, light and dark, isolation and loneliness. His intention with the LP is to bring attention to the beauty in quiet, in repetition, in a solitary state of being—human concepts we’re being deprived of as overpopulation and lackadaisical artificial lighting strip us from true, beautiful darkness. “I’m not doing research studies about rhythms that are problematic to the heart, but I’m looking at expressionistic ideas about light, rather than scientific ones,” Fennelly explains.

Bellowing Sun was initially concocted as a multi-media experience, and this, perhaps is where the records’ themes—light and the modern world, death and decay—are most prevalent. The album was conceived three years ago, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago gave Fennelly the opportunity to follow through on this vision, bringing the visual accompaniment to Bellowing Sun’s 73-minutes to life. In a way, the album itself is a strikingly visual experience. “Vermillion Pink,” which Noisey is premiering today, is a prodding, curious composition—nine minutes of bouncy hand drums, tom drums, and shakers combining to create a deliriously fun cacophony, coupled with elastic, crunchy synths, all awash in the hazy ambiance of his droning undercurrent. “Twenty-One Falls” features the musician Janet Beveridge Bean’s stark, haunting voice sliding across a texture of eerie synths and artificial soundscapes; it’s the soundtrack to an apocalypse of our own making.

Fennelly’s approach to the thematic elements of his work is less a guide to his philosophies than a loose reflection of ideas he arranges after the songs are in place. “It’s not like I’m so moved and charged by an idea that I need to write a song about it, but these ideas are happening and I’m thinking about them, and they’re in the trenches. When you think about it creatively, it manifests itself in the work,” he explains over the phone from his home in Chicago.

As Fennelly begins to sketch out synthesizer skeletons that eventually grow into Mind Over Mirrors songs, sources of inspiration begin to appear—if not in the few lyrics that populate his songs, then certainly in the roots from which the music grows. His relationship with his band is rather unique, using them as a sounding board from which he can continue to grow his music. Featuring Beveridge Bean on vocals and percussion, Jim Becker on vocals and fiddle, and Jon Mueller on drums and vocals, the songs on Bellowing Sun reflect another shift in Fennelly and co.’s style.

Bellowing Sun is less pop-oriented than Undying Color, and at first glance darker in tone than its predecessor too. The shimmering synths of opener “Feeding on the Flats” glimmer and pop, enveloping upon themselves and sounding like an extra-terrestrial orchestra tuning their instruments. The album, Fennelly explains, comes from a single piece of work he expanded over the course of two months.

Photo by Saverio Truglia

“The album is based on this tonal, melodic, rhythmic piece that I was presenting to the band. I was able to take those recordings and arrange them. The idea of the album existing as one long cycle was something I wanted to have happen,” Fennelly explains. “There was one piece I was working on by myself for about two months. I recorded about ten hours of music for it. The music is based on the harmonium and a few different synthesizers, and it really transformed over the course of those two months because on those instruments small changes can affect a lot. And I had about five different arrangements of the piece, which I would then attach to different instruments and parts played by the band.”

The success of Fennelly’s vision hinges on the way he interpolates these fragments and balances them within the organic flow of Bellowing Sun’s tracklist while examining the thematic elements that underpin the work. “It’s a challenge,” he says, regarding the way these ideas are reflected in his work. “There are lots of various issues that are ongoing that any activated individual is aware of. As an artist, you try to find a way to contribute to awareness, you try to embody some awareness or knowledge...With instrumental music, it’s a little more abstract, so providing some context really helps. How do you convey these ideas and points of inspiration?”

Bellowing Sun manages to touch on fascinating iterations of drone music, presenting a wildly diverse landscape of tracks that are both individualistic and work in lock-step to present a cohesive whole. “Lanterns on the Beach,” perhaps a direct call to Beston’s book, features a simple combination of synthesizers and voice to create one of the most beautiful tracks on the album. Fennelly’s gift often lies in his ability to keep distinct threads intact as songs grow complex, but here, he’s just as impressive when peeling the layers back. “Oculate Beings” gracefully ties together American fiddle music with a tambourine led drum part that shuffles along and wouldn’t sound out of place on sitar music. It’s an idea few have the audacity to try, let alone pull off. That he does so in the middle of a cohesive song cycle—that these ideas fit—is all the more impressive.

Photo by Saverio Truglia

The music is all tied together by Fennelly’s aesthetic choices and the vision he paints. “Having hindsight is extremely helpful,” he says. “When you’re in it, you’re just in it. It’s hard to see the whole piece. I’ve been working on this piece for a really long time, it’s such a huge project, and it was deadline driven. When I was making the record, all I was focused on was trying to figure out the best way to make my music. But now I can think about how the music came to exist.”

This, perhaps, is the crowning triumph of Bellowing Sun: Its ability to spring naturally from a source, presented as music that’s existed forever, previously untapped before Fennelly awoke it from a slumber. It feels both massive and intimate, a hulking presence yet easily digestible. “I didn’t approach Bellowing Sun as only an album that exists solely in a recorded medium,” Fennelly explains at the end of our conversation. “It has a life, a three-dimensional existence that people can experience.” Bellowing Sun is merely a part of a larger vision. But the music—this current iteration of Mind Over Mirrors’ constantly evolving vision—is so powerful, so alive, that it carries a meaning all its own.

Mind Over Mirrors' Bellowing Sun is out April 6 on Paradise of Bachelors but you can pre-order it now.

Will Schube is a writer, he's on Twitter.