Mountaineers ‘Messy Century’ (Mute, 2003)

Given the world we live in now, you might think an album called ‘Messy Century’ would be a prescient political statement. But the Mountaineers’ debut is a bubblingly optimistic, at times whimsical, mess of pop experimentation and cryptic poetry – no politics in sight.

At the time of release, I was helping with bookings and DJ duties at my university’s weekly live music night, confronted by a steady stream of skinny-jeaned, Strokes-alikes. But there was the occasional surprise. Esoteric oddballs like Clor and, newly signed to Mute, Liverpool-via-small-town Wales electronic-psych three-piece Mountaineers.

Not quite pop, not quite psych and with sprinklings of lo-fi electronic manipulation, they were mesmerising. I’d liked their early releases on Liverpool’s Deltasonic label, but this music was the next step to something special.

Drawing comparisons to sonic adventurers like the Flaming Lips, the Beta Band, Daft Punk and, even, Radiohead at the time of release, in reality ‘Messy Century’ is a pure pop record at heart. In isolation, tracks like closer ‘Silent Dues’ and ‘I Gotta Sing’ (not unlike the MOR pop-rock of David Gray) are nice enough, but make for fairly unremarkable listens. But smattered in between slices of sonic oddness like musique concrète nods of ‘Backgrounds’, or the echoed krautpop ‘Belgique Limb’, and you hear a band on a voyage of discovery, maybe holding back a little, but willing to experiment none the less.

At its best, ‘Messy Century’ successfully reconciles the two sides of the Mountaineers’ divide, a compromise between their penchant for pop melody and appetite for experimenting with sound. When this unity is achieved their electro-acoustic psychedelia, infiltrated with subtle samples and bizarre sound treatments, is pure joy.

I defy anyone to find a more optimistic and uplifting opener than ‘Ripen’, a big beat hiding of the psych-folk template with a surging synth line that elevates any mood into elation.

Lyrically too, Mountaineers’ step away from pop norms with the kind poetic whimsy found in Syd Barrett’s output. The band have stated that they had nothing to do but take pot or acid on the local mountain, and their music basks in a stoned, panoramic view of the world.

‘Messy Century’ came with the promise of masterworks to come, but it failed to connect, and the band were dropped in the EMI takeover of Mute. They managed one more well-reviewed EP on Manchester label Northern Ambition in 2004, then disappeared on “hiatus” never to be seen again!

In 2020, ‘Messy Century’ is the kind of pop album we need, and remains one of the most curious debuts from the turn of the century. 

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