Koen Holtkamp and Brandon Anderegg return with yet another meticulously constructed suite of warm, partially acoustic soundcapes. Not much that will surprise longtime fans (though a pair of live pieces are atypically harsh), but a few of these pieces are quite beautiful. This, of course, is exactly what I would expect from a new Mountains album.
"Sand" begins Centralia on an absolutely perfect note, as a lazily repeating chiming note is gradually joined by low tones and warm waves of oscillating synthesizers. Sadly, the spell does not last forever and it loses me a bit by the middle, as it eventually morphs into a burbling neo-kosmische analog synth workout. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is not nearly as beautiful as the song's opening (or its droning, cello-centric ending). Also, the recent synth revival avalanche has made it nearly impossible for me to enjoy anything that sounds '70s and space-y. Thankfully straight-up synth worship is not generally what Mountains are about: Holtkamp and Anderegg are at their best when they balance their electronics with organic instrumentation like acoustic guitars, strings, and piano. When they stick to that, the results are often quite impressive, as they are on the album highlight "Identical Ship," which elegantly marries rolling acoustic arpeggios, twinkling piano, and oscillating, hissing synthesizers.
In general, it tends to be the more guitar-heavy pieces that stand out, such as the darkly rustic "Tilt" or the gently shimmering "Living Lens." However, there are a couple of anomalous live pieces featuring additional musicians that also make an impression of sorts. The shorter of the two, "Liana," is something of a standard issue burbling and twinkling kosmische homage that ends with some unexpectedly jarring distortion-heavy guitar. The considerably longer "Propeller" offers a similarly heavy climax after much synth noodling, but its distorted crescendo feels much more cathartic and well-earned.
Unfortunately, while I love some individual pieces, Centralia can be quite frustrating as an album. With few exceptions, nearly every song boasts at least one motif that I wholeheartedly enjoy. The tragedy is that that motif is always fleeting and that Mountains have an exasperating compulsion to steer every song into bubbly, candy-colored synth-based artificiality. This drives me insane, as Koen and Brandon can be so great when get the contrast between spaciness and earthiness just right. They can even be great when their synths are employed to evoke an actual human mood, but too often the mood they seem to be aiming for is "very synthy" or "cloyingly cheery." I suspect people with less deeply ingrained hostility towards retro analog psychedelia may find a lot more to love about this album than I did, but "Sand" and "Identical Ship" are well-worth hearing in any case.