For Grant Huling, the drive to complete and release The Mere, his former band The Empty Mirror’s second album, eight years after their split was a matter of following his muse and honoring the amazing music he felt the Universe gave him. Releasing this epic work, along with the 16-track collection Overkill: Outtakes from the Empty Mirror, has allowed the visionary singer/songwriter to experience closure of a fruitful, prolific era of his musical life while sharing their powerful, often dark and heavy indie art rock with a new generation of fans. In conjunction with The Mere – released to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the band’s debut – Huling has also released two compelling music videos from The Mere, the title track and “Thinking in Tongues.”
As fresh and impactful now as it was in its early stages, The Mere – which Huling dubs “a nocturnal, unsettled work” – is much more than an exercise in nostalgia. Yet an overview of the band’s history will help folks new to The Empty Mirror’s music understand the big picture. In 2008, the band released Overwhelm, a buzzing, swirling “collage of civilization in collapse,” as one critic called it. Their garage epic was acclaimed and they were “flagged as self-releases to invest in, and ones who looked capable of going far.” Instead, they “went critical, collapsing after two EPs and an album of contemplative, renegade rock songs.”
Since the split, guitarist Kerry Kallberg established Brooklyn’s shirtless “panic rock” flagbearers Flagland, bassist Pete Steffy founded Detroit lo-fi trio Beekeepers and drummer Bill Kim (who helped lay the foundation for The Mere) moved to Japan and founded the prog metal act “The Uncrowned Union.” Huling wandered, recording “achingly emotive slices of acoustic-led beauty” in Seattle and Paris apartments, then hosting the NY-based philosophical music discussion podcast Quick to Listen. He now lives in Columbus, OH with his wife, artist Rose Stark, and their baby, Juno. He makes himself useful as an affordable housing construction project coordinator. He is currently undertaking the second season of Hymns of Haden Laas, a megaproject whereby each month he uploads his adaptation of a piece by Haden Laas, a long-undiscovered hymnodist who died in World War I.
In Review: THE MERE has a bold and dynamic sense an grips the listener into a trance like state, with a lyrical texture similar to early Pink Floyd, of the Syd Barret period, mixed with a compositional tone akin to bands like King Crimson, Camel, ELP and the like. The work of Grant Huling Empty Mirror is definitely not to be considered period or dated, but as a testimonial of the Psychological Progressive Rock predecessor to the modern prog movement. My favorite tracks are Breakfast at Midnight, Thinking in Toungs, Fatehandler (For an Insignificant Man) and Inedia (Naked Girl), simply for the fact that they bend the senses and fill a void in abstract thought, the tracks defy explanation yet demand contemplation.
The Mere’s nine linked tracks advance the delicate harmonic ambiguity and bold formal deconstruction heard in the Empty Mirror’s 2009 EP Abstracted Catholic. Huling’s brass arrangements, recorded in Williamsburg in 2014, lend these drearily horny pieces an eerie big band swagger. The cycle obliquely tells the story of a doubt-stricken young man, Fatehandler, and a malnourished young woman, Inedia, trapped in a purgatorial cycle of hooking up. The apocalyptic fear charging the Empty Mirror’s earlier work has been scaled down to an uncomfortably intimate scale – as the title track concludes: “We’re mediocrity. I’ll tell all.” Key entry points include the brooding “All Stems (Ready to Fast-Forward Now),” about the acid combination of contempt and excitement animating a mismatched relationship; “Breakfast at Midnight,” a lighter-hearted insomniac romp; and the through-composed closing duo about the fate of the two lead characters, “Fatehandler (For an Insignificant Man)” and “Inedia (Naked Girl).”
“The album has a purgatorial sense to me,” Huling says. “It’s about being ‘stuck in a damn loop,’ as one song says. Unfortunately, that feeling extended to the creation of the album. I do think of it as being cursed. It just couldn’t be nailed down…The band’s ten-year anniversary provided a now-or-never impetus to record it, so I did, while in grad school in late 2016/2017. I did it in my backyard shed, which was freezing – particularly when I recorded ‘Thinking in Tongues,’ and I think it comes through in the song. The record is very interior, dreary, and anxious, with a lot of imagery about hooking up and alcohol…
“What I’m doing now is still, I hope, explorative with song form and with unusual, rich, jazzy chords,” he says. “However, since The Mere, I’ve focused on refining things, so that those elements are integrated within a song that hopefully sounds guileless, artless, and intuitive (vs. weird). Like how many Elliott Smith songs or Christmas carols sound like they’ve always existed? I haven’t found any spiritual answers since The Mere, but I have become healthier and more contented. I’ve been making music that, rather than portraying a sealed-off purgatory, turns towards the light — songs that can push the listener and me both towards a sense of power and levity.”
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