As I was listening to The Mercury Program’s most recent CD, A Data Learn the Language, my girlfriend said it sounded like elevator music. Though I disagree, I can understand why she would say that. The Mercury Program plays quiet, moody instrumental melodies that could perhaps pass as neutral background music in a department store elevator. It’s neither straight jazz nor rock, but an ephemeral blend of both that seems aimed at creating a musical atmosphere that’s simultaneously soothing and unsettling. In the tradition of 1970s jazz, the drums and bass lay out a backdrop sounding like a balmy summer afternoon, and the guitar, vibraphone, and electric piano alternately swoop in with complex improvisational lines.
The complexity of the music is what differentiates The Mercury Program from the plastic imitation jazz you hear at Sears. The music doesn’t get in your face and scream at you, but it refuses to be ignored or simply blend into the background. These guys all play their instruments with the extreme skill too often left by the wayside in the modern independent rock scene. But The Mercury Program’s real beauty lies not in individual musicianship, but in the way all of the parts come together and complement each other so eloquently. One minute the music is tranquil and ambient, and you don’t really notice as it builds, like storm clouds coming together and sagging heavy with rain, until torrents of sound suddenly come pouring out.
The Mercury Program has been together for six years, and you can hear the intra-band familiarity in the way they change harmonies and time signatures smoothly. Each of the musicians in this Gainesville, Florida quartet has experience playing with rawer, more clamorous and rocking bands, including most famously (in Gainesville, at any rate) a group called Youses’ Well in the early ’90s. But they all wanted to play something that, although quieter, is also much more intricate and cerebral.
Perhaps due to the band’s heady sound, critics have struggled to classify Mercury Program into a genre; a few have settled on the term “post-rock.” But, objects Mercury Program guitarist Tom Reno, “That is a label that definitely doesn’t fit us. We are much more influenced by jazz and modern classical music than any of that.” So what label do you put on a band that’s part rock and part jazz, with hints of ambient electronic sounds?
Pretty much whichever you want, say Reno. “Musicians usually think they are playing something totally original that can’t be put in a genre or compared to anything else. They are too close to the music to see the bigger trends they are swept up in, but people will always label you this or that. It’s the tendency of humans.”
Regardless of how they’re classified, Reno says that The Mercury Program generally appeals to surprisingly broad base of listeners. “People from a lot of different scenes come to our shows,” says the guitarist. “There are people who are into jazz, or jam bands, or hardcore music, but they all seem to appreciate some aspect of what we do.”
The Mercury Program get all Mingus on your ass this Sunday, November 17, at 10 PM. Also playing: Maserati and local damage factory Ever Since the Accident. Cover TBA.