Ben Morey listens to the news when he writes music. That would explain the clever pessimism running through the song "Been Gone," from his epic album "Mt. Doom," just released on June 30 through City of Quality Records and Dadstache Records: "I don't shudder when I read the news / You know nobody in the cemetery's got the blues."
"And then the rest of the song is about not being able to pay attention to what's actually happening in the moment because you're so worried about these things," Morey says, "and it's running through your head all the time." This sense of paradox runs rampant on "Mt. Doom," an ambitious rock record that feels at various times hopeful and apocalyptic.
"There's a lot of dystopian kind of stuff on the album, and detachment, nihilism, because of" listening to the news while composing, Morey says. "But there's also me trying to imagine like these ideal spaces and places where I could sort of escape from reality. The songs, like "The Hill," are about like heaven, that I could kind of experience musically, to step away from the fact that the world was on fire."
An already busy Rochester musician in the bands Howlo and Dumb Angel, Morey was working on solo material he had originally planned to release as a lo-fi, four-track recording on cassette when the project known as "Mt. Doom" started to take shape. "I just didn't feel satisfied enough," Morey says. "I was like, I feel like these are maybe the best songs that I've written, and I want to get more experimental with the production, and I want to make it sound as good as I can."
The resulting album was eventually recorded in South Wedge Mission, an unassuming church on Caroline Avenue that has become a prominent venue in the local indie music scene. After attending a show there, Morey soon began hosting concerts in the space. When he approached Pastor Matthew Martin Nickoloff about recording his music there, Nickoloff made him a key to the church.
For three months during the summer of 2016, about six days a week, Morey practically lived at the Mission. And the album quickly became a large collaboration, a far cry from the singer-songwriter's initial, more solitary sessions.
"I've always kind of played everything myself on all my records, and I'm pretty good at a couple instruments, and then I would kind of just spend a long time trying to get one part on another instrument," Morey says. "And I thought, this would go quicker and it would sound better if I just got the best person I know to play this part that I'm thinking. Once I had that idea, I was just like, 'What if this was a big community project, where I got to work with all these people that I admire, to play the thing that I think that they're best at?'"
"Mt. Doom" features a backing band of more than 30 rotating musicians called The Eyes — including members of bands such as Maybird, Thunder Body, Attic Abasement, Green Dreams, Passive Aggressives Anonymous, Paxtor, and more, as well as noteworthy singer-songwriters Mikaela Davis and Cammy Enaharo and Katie Preston of Pleistocene. Their presence is most apparent with the background vocals, which have an irresistible, retro, 1960's vibe. The vocal contributions of the trio — known as the Vinaigrettes — is Morey's favorite part of "Mt. Doom." A Vinaigrettes album is in the works.
"They're in three separate ranges," Morey says. "Because of that, because they had these immediately defined places in the harmony before we even started, and because they're just such good collaborators already, they were able to work out the parts so quickly and come up with the most beautiful stuff."
Preston also served as the album's co-producer with Morey, an experience she says strengthened her own songwriting and musicianship. "Ben has an immense amount of respect for everyone who played on this album as musicians, something I think shows on the recordings," Preston says. "I knew that from watching Ben interact with the musicians and the amount of freedom he gave everyone that it wasn't going to sound like anything else he's done. What emerged was an incredibly creative piece of music, one that has lots of stories."
For an album as cohesive as "Mt. Doom," the songs have disparate influences: the Carter Family inspired "The Hill" and "Smoking In the Sun"; the music of Neil Young informed "Flowers" and "Shade of the Mountain"; "Black Jacket" draws from The Shangri-Las and the production of Phil Spector; even Johann Sebastian Bach's influence can be heard on the title track.
Thematically, there is something of the spiritual that unites the music, with Morey articulating the delicate bridge between the earthly human experience and intangible otherworldliness.
"'Mt. Doom' sort of became like an umbrella term for the afterlife, for the record. It gave a name to this fictional, idealist place I was creating on a lot of these songs," Morey explains. "I think 'Mt. Doom' kind of was a name for where we are and also a name for like a place to go, after where we are."
Ben Morey and The Eyes will play a Hidden Garden Concert at the George Eastman Museum, 900 East Avenue, on Saturday, August 19, in celebration of the release of "Mt. Doom." Pipa player O will open the show. 5:30 p.m. $8-$10. For more info, visit eastman.org.