Happy Place is a sextet led by drummer/composer Will Mason. When I reviewed their 2016 album Northfield, I described them as “an instrumental quartet from New York whose music falls somewhere between Battles and the Melvins.” The lineup has changed somewhat since then; second drummer Austin Vaughn has been replaced by Kate Gentile, and while guitarist Andrew Smiley (formerly of Little Women) remains, his counterpart Will Chapin has also left, with Dan Lippel taking his place. The group also now has vocals, courtesy of Elaine Lachica and Charlotte Mundy. So in a way it’s become a sort of double trio, and the music has changed accordingly. The math-rock and rolling-and-tumbling drum-thunder aspects are still present, but the vocals add a kind of New Music abstraction to it, so…the Melvins covering early Philip Glass?
The new album, Tendrils, has nine tracks, but the last two compositions are split into two parts each, so it’s actually only seven pieces in about 53 minutes. The music is less jagged than on Northfield, and has a more exploratory feel, as though the players are learning it as they go. Only Gentile seems fully in control; Mason himself seems just slightly behind the beat, as though he’s responding — fast, it must be noted — to what she plays rather than having his own notated parts. They do lock in sometimes, as on the title track, where the combination of clattering drums, eerie keyboards, and off-kilter art-rock guitar twang brings to mind early ’80s Peter Gabriel.
The compositions on Tendrils are mostly discrete, not a continuous suite like the last album, though the title piece does feed directly into the short “Having, Climbing.” Each has its own mood and feel. Sometimes the vocals are wordless, but “Tarnish” and “Grain,” for example, have abstract and somewhat unsettling lyrics, sung in a high and desolate register.
The last piece on the album, the two-part “Rapture,” is the most ferocious. One guitar clangs and pings like wires being clipped, while the other tears into a grinding, distorted rock riff and the vocalists sing high single notes over and over again like devotees of an obscure cult summoning their god by chanting themselves unconscious, as the drums maintain an unceasing militaristic barrage. It could easily have been composed by guitarist Mick Barr, in a particularly rapturous state of mind. There’s a short pause at the end of the first part, and the second starts off lower, slower and more sparse, like doom metal with a beat. Then Smiley and Lippel begin to take simultaneous loose, tangled solos, turning the whole thing into a barbed-wire sculpture rolling across the ground, tearing up grass as it goes. But even as the music becomes a clanging, snarling blues-rock jam, with a heavy double-drum backbeat, the wordless vocals add a deeply unsettling, off-kilter element.
Despite its art-song qualities, which are enjoyable on their own, this album also has enough percussive whomp and guitar scorch to be worth playing at wall-cracking volume. It’s one of the most fascinating records of 2020; don’t miss out.