AMN Reviews: Happy Place – Tendrils (2020; Exit Stencil Recordings)

Tendrils ironically arrived at my inbox on November 8, 2020, and I was in a happy place indeed, though for reasons not relating to music. In any event, this outfit consisted of the unusual lineup of two drummers and two guitarists when it released Northfield four years ago. Led by drummer / composer / music professor Will Mason, Happy Place is expanded to include a pair of vocalists as well for this offering. The full lineup, slightly different this time around, is Mason and the mighty Kate Gentile on drums, Elaine Lachica and Charlotte Mundy on vocals, and Andrew Smiley and Dan Lippel on guitar. Mason adds atmospheric electronics to some tracks.

If one were to describe Tendrils during an elevator pitch, it would go something like, “Battles meets Magma” or “Carl Orff goes to hell with Greg Saunier.” Mason and Gentile provide a polyphonic set of patterns that interlock with the jangly rhythms and melodies from Smiley and Lippel. In particular, the latter two are looser around the edges than on Northfield, as the guitars provide both gritty leads and backing structure for the vocals. There is no rock soloing per-se, and instead the focus is on short motifs and rough chording.

The vocals are what sets Tendrils apart. While Lachica and Mundy sing on a couple of tracks – mostly in a melancholy fashion – they really open things up in the last 30 minutes of the album. The closest comparison is last year’s two-vocalist avant-rock effort from Alexander Noice, but Mason’s compositions are more spacious. Case in point, on Having, Climbing, Lachica and Mundy chant not unlike Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi over repetitive and dense guitars and drums. The two-part Invocations is outright haunting with rapidly-spoken voices, falling chords, and then a return to chanting in a song structure that would be comfortable on Henry Cow’s Western Culture. The album wraps up with another two-parter, Rapture, that features an intense post-rock intro before Lachica and Mundy once again bring wordless vocals into the mix in a fashion that ramps up the energy levels even more. After a brief strummed-guitar interlude, the full group returns with chants, chording, and super-imposed drumming.

Tendrils is a unique and weirdly compelling release. It just can’t get much better than when Mason and crew let loose. Thus, we have an album of the year candidate.