Graded on a Curve: Michele Mercure,
Pictures of Echoes

Based in Lancaster, PA, composer Michele Mercure self-released a bunch of worthwhile synth-based music throughout the 1980s, with this output getting a deserved increase in profile through recent reissues from RVNG Intl. and its affiliated label Freedom to Spend. These two prior archival editions have both been on vinyl, but the latest, Pictures of Echoes, is a compilation available May 8 digitally and on cassette in a slim edition of 150 copies, the choice of format fitting as spooled tape was the manner of initial release for nearly all of Mercure’s home recordings.

In RVNG Intl.’s promotional text for Beside Herself, the 2LP/ CD they released in 2018 with subsidiary Freedom to Spend, Michele Mercure’s music is described as belonging to the “DIY cassette trading scene” of the 1980s, this reality establishing her stuff as flying considerably under any sort of mainstream radar, though the reissuing parties also helpfully pointed out that during this same period Mercure composed for experimental theater and soundtracked some public television.

And so, her background, if certainly subterranean, expands a bit from the image of a home-taper hunkered down in a basement and self-releasing material via coverage in Sound Choice and Option magazines. However, in a recent interview for the website Fields, Mercure does indeed describe herself as an avid ’80s tape trader (with a fondness for European stuff). The music compiled on Beside Herself and given the straight reissue treatment on Eye Chant fits into the scheme of ’80s cassette culture like digits into latex.

Eye Chant initially came out on vinyl in 1986 and was repressed that way in 2017 as Freedom to Spend’s inaugural release. It and Beside Herself are both sold out on vinyl (CDs of the latter are still around), this unavailability surely destined for Pictures of Echoes’ cassette edition as the format circles back to how the majority of her output was first distributed. Those releases include Rouge and Mint, A Cast of Shadows and Dreams Without Dreamers, all from ’83-’85, and Dreamplay from ’90.

The pieces assembled for Pictures of Echoes underscore healthy variety and heights of quality as the contents unwind as satisfactorily as Beside Herself, and while shorter, the tape still offers plenty of period flavor. Opener “10,000 Cranes” bursts forth with keyboard that suggests a cathedral organ gliding atop a bedrock of bass wiggle and drum thump. Crashed cymbals and a sort of synthetic bamboo flute instill the ambience of Asian folk.

“#32” is an intriguing bit of business, beginning with a hyperactive synth bounce that’s like a Minimalist retort to The Who’s nod toward Terry Riley, though it quickly gives way to motions that suggest the theme to an ’80s action film, complete with big synth swooshes that mimic the sound of a jet flying overhead. Definitely dated, it manages to eschew the cheesy through strength of layered instrumentation.

This soundtrack quality reaches its greatest heights in “War Rhythms,” the nearly 17-minute opener on side two, with its helicopter pulse at the start followed by a progression of elements blending the foreboding and the mysterious as the tension just keeps ratcheting up. The title and the recurring chopper sound successfully paint a picture of what kind of movie this just might be as the home recorded aura establishes the smallness of the hypothetical flick’s budget.

Still, in terms of ambition, Mercure’s work proposes something nearer to Apocalypse Now than Missing in Action, and that’s cool. Side one’s “Rhythm of Life” is just as sweet as it connects like a scaled-back version of mid-’80s post new wave art-funk played by a band camping out on the outskirts of a tropical forest. Next, the rubbery synths of “Musst March” are reminiscent of the Neue Deutsche Welle as the lack of vocals suggest an ’80s dystopian sci-fi movie where everyone wears trench coats and chain smokes like it’s the ’50s.

“Tree of Knowledge” adjusts the retrofuturist feel and could be of interest to BBC Radiophonic Workshop fans, while “Dreamplay 1” reveals songwriting that with a few adjustments and a vocalist could’ve brought Mercure into the neighborhood of synth-pop. But pop wasn’t her thing, as the three tracks completing side two, “Solo Dance,” “Mask Dance,” and “Lily’s Theme” highlight her score to the Mary Haverstick-directed 1993 film Shades of Black.

Unsurprisingly, the ’80s ambiance subsides considerably, as does the home recorded feel, though “Mask Dance” in particular really emphasizes her dedication to electronics. These later cuts are as worthwhile as the earlier material, which is no small accomplishment. In fact, I’d like to check out the entire soundtrack for Shades of Black (which came out on CD) and her music for Haverstick’s subsequent films Home and The Last Horsemen of New York (to my knowledge, Mercure’s work for both is unreleased). Until then, Pictures of Echoes and RVNG Intl./ Freedom to Spend’s prior reissues will suffice.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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