Mt. Onsra – ‘SACRED TIME’

By Ian Kenworthy

Lockdown was a strange time. A double-edged sword. Distress and isolation on the one side, connection and creativity on the other. Unable to go about their lives, two friends found themselves reconnecting. They found a spark. They founded Mt. Onsra.

Multi-instrumentalists Simon Allen and Russell Cleave hadn’t worked together since their band split back in 1995. Forging their own paths, Cleave joined a series of acclaimed bands while Allen found critical success as a solo artist. Mt. Onsra is something different. The sound is a blend of post-rock, with over-driven guitars, haunting arpeggios and synths to add texture. Sometimes this results in a traditional ‘song’ and sometimes the vocals are used as part of a canvas, and of course, the word “sometimes” implies this is a relativity experimental band. Their work has a mix of melody and majesty which is similar to ISIS but might remind you f Thrice or Cave In without really sounding like either. Its experimental edge could also draw comparisons to more obscure bands like Cold Crows Dead. Whichever way you look at their work, it is a fascinating project.

Unable to meet up, Allen and Cleave sent demos and ideas back and forward over Whatsapp eventually leading to their debut album, 2022’s ‘Written In Silence’. It’s a noisy album. Beautiful. Harsh. There’s a loudness and simplicity to its soundscapes, a sense of space that relishes the slides between notes and the thump of a drumkit or the delicate whispers of vocal. It’s a strange listen, slightly uncomfortable at its own existence but carving an interesting path. The follow-up shares a lot of its DNA, but where the first record was about reconnection and finding what works, ‘Sacred Time’ is about exploring that relationship, using different methods that gives it a slightly different texture. In effect, it is a work of atmosphere, of raw intimacy and tension.

With such unusual roots, it’s not surprising that Mt. Onsra’s music has such an interesting relationship to space and time. The songs often start slowly, with guitar arpeggios, interwoven vocal parts and ‘watery’ synths to create tension and evolve with careful layering and thoughtful progression. While the album largely forgoes the huge sound of their debut, it isn’t afraid of being loud and brash, with light chugging giving the songs weight and presence. When songs like ‘Fever Dream’ explode to life with detuned-sounding riffs it feels earned.

Although the core sound most closely resembles post-rock, it’s surprising that most songs run at around three and a half minutes. This means they feel focused and to the point, but often like there’s just a little more missing or as if there’s a pay-off they haven’t quite provided. This is also a form of tension, like a question the duo can’t fully articulate the answer to.

One of the project’s most striking features is the approach to vocals. Each song is a mixture of texture, melody and some genuinely beautiful parts. As the recording literally attempted to capture a raw edge, each song has an individual character. It’s notable how well this works as the singers intertwine on ‘Voices’ and opener ‘Emergent’ but also on the spine-tingling ‘Universal’. However, at their best the vocals challenge what the music is doing in creative and satisfying ways. This is most striking on the chorus of ‘I Question I’ which flirts with being catchy before settling into more of an intimate tease.

By the time ‘Revelation’ rolls around, there’s a sense of déjà vu and it begins to feel like they’ve explored their whole repertoire and have started to run in place, so the gradual inclusion of a thumping drum beat and deeper, spoken word parts neatly catches you off guard. Despite the position in the running order working against it, the song marks a transition into the more experimental second half and in doing so neatly sets the scene for ‘The Depths We Dive’, an undoubted highlight. With its louder, over-driven electric guitar, heavily strummed opening and vicious, biting riffs, it provides a canvas for its striking refrain of ‘I don’t know why?’. This sets the stage for ‘The King’s Return’ which provides a contrast to the songs around it with an eerie glitching electronic opening and haunting organ sound which provides contrast with the songs around it while fitting neatly with the overall feel. Unusually, it’s followed by ‘Voices’ which sees a return to the core sound of arpeggios and heavier, hazier guitars. However it’s taking the record around in a full circle and provides a satisfying ending.

The issue, and the one that really harms the overall impression, is that many of the songs just stop. No fade-out, no outro they just end. It’s an interesting choice but creates a distinctly weird overall feel especially as what really makes the songs is atmosphere. As it appears so frequently (it’s perhaps almost jarring on ‘I Question I’) it actually becomes a feature of their music. There are so many hard stops and truncated ideas, you get the feeling they’re trying to express something by doing it. However, it’s frustrating that it cuts the album up into a series of distinct entities, of slow starts and abrupt endings which means it’s hard to get lost in.

Using a shared past to make something new Mt Onsra display so much creative chemistry it’s a delight to be part of their journey. ‘Sacred Time’ is the sound of two people reaching across time for something they’re not quite able to grasp. It’s a complicated, awkward yet beautiful record filled with engaging ideas and textures. Listen and you’ll wonder just what they’ll create next, and that’s a real endorsement.

IAN KENWORTHY

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