(Good to Die)
Playing more like a storybook soundtrack than standard rock album, Merso’s full-length debut rises and falls and stretches and retracts over its hour-long course, surging toward an explosive, inexorable climax. It’s a far more immersive listening experience than might be expected from a conventional dual-guitar-bass-drums quartet, perhaps due to one of singer/guitarist Tristan Sennholz’s more unlikely influences. The album’s title nods to early-’80s Swamp Thing, a comic book run penned by Alan Moore in which the namesake green hero battles an alien nemesis intent on destroying the violent, selfish meatspace occupied by humans—aka the Red World.
Moore’s run of Swamp Thing was a gothic, metaphysical head trip that included demonic possession, astral projection and psychedelically enhanced, human-Swamp Thing sex. Red World conjures a similarly hallucinatory state and sustains it with disparate vocals, braided guitars and long, unpredictable song structures. It begins with “Astoria,” setting Sennholz’s falsetto in a specific locale, echoing over churchy electric piano as he sings of “seraphim tears for your heroin dreams.” At eight minutes long, the song travels across several movements, breaking down in tone and tempo, eventually arriving at a swell of overlaid guitars courtesy of Taylor Romoser. “Reunion Show” shifts gears into a surprisingly sensual, soulful post-rock ballad, Sennholz’s voice keening boyishly, “Whisky and sweet Fernet/Let me light your cigarette, girl”—sweet and deliciously creepy.
The mellow vibes continue until halfway through “Ten Years in a Juvenile Fantasy,” where the first signs of Merso’s former life as a downtuned stoner-rock band arise. But even as the song shudders into its aggressive third act, the band paints with a palette of warm, brilliant colors. “Serial Killer” is the album’s only misstep, Sennholz’s clunky lyric tripping up the song’s frantic, prog-rock composition. “Librium” rides the contrast between its gentle midsection and ominous finale, and by the time “Red World Part I” and “Red World Part II & III” close out the album the music has coalesced into an almost tangible, tactile force.
Those two final songs add up to one-third of the album’s total run time and they bear much of its thematic load. Here Sennholz assumes full storytelling mode: “I’m a phantom limb,” he intones, “that only you can see/While you snuggle with your lover/The one who smells of fallen leaves.” The reference to Swamp Thing is clear, but before long the voice drops away and the rest of the band assumes the narrative. As “Part I” transitions into “Part II and III,” Romoser’s crunchy guitar pushes against a rhythm section (bassist Evan Anderson and drummer Taylor Carroll) that’s insistent yet nimble. The last 16 minutes of the album churn with dread and joy, darkness and light—the kind of deep, dramatic tension found more often in a good novel than a good album.