The Mercury Tree weave a quite daunting tapestry of progressive rock and fusion chops. If your musical prejudices work similarly to mine then you have already formed a mental imprint of what they sound like from that brief soundbite. Think again.
The band formed in 2006 in Portland, Oregon, led by guitarist and vocalist Ben Spees. Original drummer Mike Byrne was picked by Billy Corgan to fill Jimmy Chamberlin’s shoes in Smashing Pumpkins. New drummer Connor Reilly was recruited and “Pterodactyls” was recorded in 2011, with Alan Johnson on bass completing the trio.
All three musicians display formidable skill on their individual instruments but the real musicality of “Pterodactyls” shines through in how those instruments interact. To make the crass power trio allusion, these guys are no Rush or Cream clones, they have developed their own vocabulary of interplay. The juxtaposition of disparate layers brings to mind the math rock of Don Caballero or Faraquet, and yet Spees’ vocals provide a focal centre – there are real songs here within the kaleidoscopic mix.
Johnson is not averse to hitting the high register while Spees meets him in the middle on baritone guitar. Rather than muddying proceedings, this creates a kind of trompe l’oreille where it’s not obvious what is bass and what is guitar. The Mercury Tree certainly don’t sound like a trio when they are locked in a ferocious polyrhythmic battle. Canny keyboard lines are overlaid making it challenging to know on what to concentrate and yet it all just works on an accessible level while the complexity rewards repeat listening. Despite this complexity there’s a songwriting sense at work, making everything feel organic and flow logically.
“Pterodactyls” is reminiscent of and will appeal to fans of Cynic. It is the sound of extremely technical and gifted musicians, with a jazz bent and a thorough knowledge of music theory, distilling their talent into a cohesive whole rather than showing off with fusion flights of masturbatory whimsy.