COLUMN: MGMT looks back on a psychedelia-inspired experience on 11.11.11

On November 11, 2011, MGMT performed a unique set of live music at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in collaboration with and inspired by Maurizio Cattelan’s “All” exhibition. Cattelan, who recently gained notice for his piece “Comédien” – consisting of a banana duct glued to a wall – hung 130 of his pieces from the ceiling of the Guggenheim rotunda.

According to group instagram, both the museum space and the art within it inspired their “loose, hypnotic and psychedelic” set which was left unreleased to the public for exactly 11 years, but was recently released on November 11 of this year. It’s a far cry from what fans have come to expect from MGMT, but many of the highlights found in their other works remain here.

After a brief introduction, “Invocation” introduces the set. The majority of the song is built on a buzzing synth holding a single note with shifting melodies moving around it. The use of the drone as well as the structure of the melodies that surround it invoke the sounds of Indian classical music in the style of indie synth-pop.

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In the final minute of the song, the chord finally changes, keeping the broad, resonant texture but shifting to a more Western melodic structure. The prolonged presence of the drone makes the change somewhat surprising towards the end of the song, but the shift to something more familiar to the majority of the MGMT audience, relieving the tension of the drone.

As the record continues, more and more typical MGMT sounds seep in, but they still retain the delayed psychedelic texture. “I Am Not Your Home” features a similar drone at the start, this time in the high register, floating above crisp, resonant guitars.

This high-pitched buzz continues throughout the underlying chord changes, recontextualizing it in each section of the song. Themes of tension and release remain prominent, with some sections sounding discordant and uneasy while others sound harmonically stable and relaxed.

“Who’s Counting” begins with a polyrhythmic groove between drums and guitar with floating synths playing in the background. The voice, when it enters, is full of delay and only makes occasional appearances. When the chorus arrives, it becomes clearer and more cohesive, sounding like a familiar MGMT song for the first time on the album.

The melody oscillates between these subtly different feelings, settling on the clearest one for the song’s conclusion. It gets somewhat repetitive towards the end, somewhat muted by sporadic synth and guitar lines playing in the background.

The album ends with “Under the Porch”, which borrows from the sounds of surf rock, mixing them with psychedelia. A guitar solo opens the wandering and loose song without pushing it too much.

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The groove is very relaxed, takes its time and lets the soloist breathe, but it still keeps the texture interesting. After four minutes, however, the solo becomes somewhat tedious, and listeners hoping to move on will be deeply disappointed.

Although this album deviates from MGMT’s modus operandi, it certainly has its upsides. MGMT superfans will no doubt be delighted to gain access to a piece of the band’s previously lost past, and connoisseurs of psychedelic and jam band music might discover a new appreciation for the band.

More casual MGMT listeners, like myself, will likely be sidetracked by the unusual direction “11.11.11” is taking. Although the foundation is strong, it overstays its welcome more often than is comfortable. I often found myself waiting for a musical shift that never happened. Still, I appreciate having access to this unique performance, even if it didn’t particularly strike me.

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