""So it goes" is the primary recurring refrain in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. It's a nihilistic phrase – a resigned response to death and tragedy. Its repetition throughout the book is a kind of attrition, with the despair and inhumanity of war being reiterated until it borders on absurdity. Other refrains make multiple appearances in the book. The narrator describes his drunken breath as "mustard gas and roses." Later, that same phrase is used to describe the smell of corpses after the bombing of Dresden. "Mustard gas and roses" becomes its own type of attrition, a repeated bombardment and reminder of our crimes, from petty inebriations to horrific massacres.
Guitarist Mike Gallagher understands how repetition can serve as an attack strategy. Over the course of five albums, Gallagher's old band Isis demonstrated how simple recurring motifs could build into earthquaking climaxes. And in his spare time, he constructed paired down models of this principle under his solo moniker MGR (Mustard Gas & Roses). Armed with little more than a guitar, some effects, and the occasional auxiliary instruments, Gallagher composed instrumental pieces that fluctuated between whispers and cataclysms. It was a strategy on par with his namesake's creator: rather than bludgeoning the audience with horror, minor dramas were threaded together into blanketing tapestries of tragedy. The first three MGR albums, Nova Lux, Wavering on the Cresting Heft, and 22nd of May were as intimate as a narrator's breath and as harrowing as sifting through the wreckage of battle.
But then Gallagher took a moment away from music. "After Isis disbanded in 2010, I wasn't too busy with music and I thought I might be done playing in bands," he says of his hiatus. It was only when an invitation came to open a European tour for A Storm Of Light that MGR was resurrected. Gallagher recruited some of his tourmates to play with him, creating a full-band version of MGR. Shortly after, Boris and Pelican offered MGR some California dates, and Gallagher enlisted Jay Bennett (Ides of Gemini, Black Mare), Bryan Tulao (Chelsea Wolfe, Black Math Horseman, Mother Tongue), and Sash Popovic (Black Math Horseman, Mother Tongue) to round out MGR into a proper band. With this full-band line-up, MGR recorded its third album, Becoming.
It's an appropriate title for an album that feels like a transition into a new phase of MGR. While the eight songs on Becoming adhere to the pensive gloom of Gallagher's past work, the full band arrangements allow the compositions to build into even more grandiose apexes. From the rolling boil of the opener "Closer" to crushing chords of album finale "Rise," MGR explores their newfound boundaries of volume and dynamics afforded by the addition of dueling guitars, drums, and bass. Even besides the added heft from the rhythm section and second guitarist, there are new sonic forays for MGR on their latest album. Title track "Becoming" is a shining example of an expanded palette, with acoustic guitars and chanted vocals summoning the kind of dark folk music championed by Michael Gira and David Eugene Edwards. These more nuanced moments are offset by the minimalist bludgeoning of tracks like "As One," which conjures the brute instrumentals of Dutch post-metal pioneers Gore.
Becoming is the rebirth of MGR. And while vestiges of Gallagher's brooding isolated ballads can still be heard in the orchestrated roar of his revamped project, it feels very much like a resurrection, a second life. "So it goes."