Eternal Return—the second album from Portland’s Green Hills Alone—was forged for posterity within the cavernous acoustics of an empty five-bedroom home in Astoria, Ore., overlooking the frigid blue maw of the Columbia River. You can sense the emptiness of the house, with the reverberated spaces between the notes holding as much importance as what is being played. It’s an empowering sound and vision that Chris Miller has been striving for since he started performing as Green Hills Alone in the very early 2000s amongst the insular punk rock underground of Northern California.
Since those halcyon days, the wellsprings of Miller’s songwriting have undergone a seismic shift that mirrors his own personal and spiritual evolution, stemming from extended sojourns to Nepal, Peru and Bolivia. His ongoing creative explorations have yielded one of the most dynamic and inspiring records of his career—an album that would not have sounded the way it does without his life having, for all intents and purposes, fallen apart.
“These songs came out of solitude,” Miller explains. “The last three years, I’ve been alone for the most part. [I’ve used] the opportunity to play music every day as a means to heal and rediscover my individual sovereignty and what that means.”
While on tour in Italy as keyboardist for Robin Bacior’s band in 2016, Miller and his wife of 10 years (who was also traveling on the tour as a photographer) separated and later divorced. After finishing the tour, Miller stayed in Italy awhile longer, carving out demos from journal entries and recording them onto his iPhone. The recordings were sparse, barebones tunes possessed of Miller’s whispery vocals and his attention to subtle arrangement nuances on the keyboard.
Together with producer, drummer and bassist Mark Robertson (also of Harlowe and Weezy Ford’s band), songs like “Forest” and “Daydream in Milan” became festooned by airy accoutrement and weighted rhythmic foundations. Both tracks were built upon the iPhone demos, recorded over the original MIDI info. Consequently, many of the songs on Eternal Return have deep roots, managing to sound both gloomy and optimistic. The album pits the valleys of Miller’s visionary escapades against the peaks of his creative sparkle, resulting in a tumultuous and eagerly inspiring record that rewards repeated listens.
Reining in Miller’s many philosophical muses, both lyrically and musically, Robertson played a crucial role in the development of the album. “Mark and I have a really close friendship and we both have a similar love of exploring in music,” Miller says. “There’s mutual trust about what we’re going for. I trust him to be aware of my blind spots.”
The duo’s creative camaraderie manifested a menagerie of calculated noise, including field recordings of organic sounds like encircling bats and rowing oars splashing into water on a still lake, harbor seals on the Oregon coast and the natural sonic apparitions available thanks to recording in a vacant home.
“Generally speaking, we tried to keep the process of the record fairly reckless and intuitive,” Robertson adds. “It’s hard to overthink production on a song titled ‘Stop Thinking.’”
That track, the album’s opener, includes lyrics taken from the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese text that Miller finds inspiration from often. (“Into the Elements” also contains lines from another verse of the text.)
On “Fundamental Ground,” Miller sings of deconstructing egos and foregoing the identity hangups that plague so many people with: “We throw our lives into the air, we feel our form collapsing / But now awake, we are alive!”
“I think our reality is a sleeping reality, and I think when we’re artists and we sing and we write, we sing from a place that’s more true than the dream we’re living in,” Miller explains. “So sometimes we sing the truth, but we’re not in the mindset to really appreciate it. We can almost sing ourselves awake. That’s what I was trying to do: Sing the truth to myself—and then actually have the wherewithal to hear.”
UPCOMING RELEASE: Eternal Return out October 1