Electro-acoustic duo Mountains does one thing rather well on Choral, its first album for Thrill Jockey. Strike that--two things. The first thing Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp excel at is slowly evolving and layering a few gossamer elements--a gently plucked guitar, a shimmering synth tone, the occasional wordless faux choral wash or tinkling bell--from a quiet preamble into a numinous drone, building in volume and complexity to a modest peak, then subsiding into a somnolent coda, long or short. The second thing Mountains does rather well, though less often, is start with the drone and work backward to the guitar.
If that sounds like faint praise, it shouldn't. The duo's third album is undeniably gorgeous, a 21st-century updating of the kind of limpid prog Popol Vuh promulgated in the '70s. Other than what sounds like pouring rain emerging from the mounting white noise that tails out "Telescope," Anderegg and Holtkamp seem to have mostly skipped the "field recording" elements that distinguished previous Mountains releases, focusing on immaculate studio-bound suites. And immaculate they are, indeed, with each struck string, plaintive keyboard note, and ambient hum on tracks like "Map Table" or the prescriptively titled "Add Infinity" nestling into lapidary settings. The opening title track and "Melodica" even factor in the aforementioned wordless washes for an added heavenly effect.
So Choral ravishes, but perhaps fails to transcend. Maybe it's due to a musical version of Stendhal syndrome brought on by having one's hushed-awe button pressed track after track. Maybe it's the sneaking feeling that such button pressing is a sign of overreliance on quietly getting louder, the new quiet-loud-quiet of indie-music tropes. Many listeners will no doubt find sonic Shangri-La amid Choral's gently sloping peaks and valleys. Those less trusting of surface beauty will search on.