Black Mountain – [Album]

Friday, 10 September 2010

"Growth,” in the sense that musicians can change over time, can be a remarkably dicey proposition. That isn't to say that change in music is abhorrent – unless you're a member of AC/DC, it's impossible to justify making the same record several times over – but the gamble that comes with any artist's indulgence in change is that they also have to hope their fans will bear with them; musicians have to hope that, however they choose to augment their music, it will still affect listeners as favorably as it did before. Perhaps to help facilitate the transition between one sound and another, rock bands have historically attempted to get “darker” because it implies more conviction and a serious overtone (for examples, see each successive release in Nine Inch Nails' catalogue since Pretty Hate Machine) but that has been done so often and has become such a cliche that it's almost expected. What makes Wilderness Heart so interesting is that Black Mountain has turned the cliche on its' ear for its' third long-player.

After two albums spent sculpting dark but breathtaking stoner rock soundscapes, Black Mountain has lightened up significantly for Wilderness Heart; not that the band has spontaneously turned pop but, for these ten songs, the band turns to a more radio-friendly form of grinding – more Steppenwolf than Sabbath. From the opening lurch of “The Hair Song,” singers Stephen McBean and Amber Webber examine vocal lines more melodic than monotone and actually trade off parts rather than simply backing each other up. In addition to that, the overall structure of the song is simplified (no heroics, just brick-thick rhythm patterns) behind the vocals with Jeremy Schmidt's keyboards cresting over top to provide much of the instrumental color. The difference that those simple changes make in the context of Black Mountain's sound is enormous; the songs suddenly bear the promise of becoming more accessible to a larger listening audience than just fans of stoner rock, it'll pique the ears of anyone who likes and/or respects Seventies-era classic rock in general.

..And because it works so well the first time, Black Mountain elects to spend the duration of Wilderness Heart examining the less-regularly-examined quadrants of classic rock.

The different corners of classic rock covered by Wilderness Heart prove to be very fertile ground for Black Mountain. The band throws itself body and soul into the dusty old west while toting acoustic acoustic guitars on “Buried In The Blues,” saddles up and rides with Neil Young and Crazy Horse on “The Way To Gone,” shakes hands formally with Sabbath, Steppenwolf and Desert Sessions-esque Queens Of The Stone Age on “Old Fangs,” “Rollercoaster” and “Let Spirits Ride,” and travels over the hills and far away to find ground previously tread upon by Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham on “The Space In Your Mind.” That might mark the record as a 'moldy oldies' affair in the minds of some readers but, as many comparisons as could be drawn with the pillars of classic rock, Wilderness Heart is by no means a nostalgia trip; more accurately, it's a post-modern examination of those powers. Dotting the proceedings, clues to Black Mountain's motivation including the piper standing at the gates  of “Buried By The Blues” and the Frozen Ghost that breezes through “The Way To Gone” offer links to the past, but Black Mountain chooses to make its' own myths here and lifts not a single lick. That working effort made here feels like a conscious one; while the connecting lines could be drawn, the record stands tall on its' own because those lines only appear in the albums periphery.

So what, if not an homage to classic rock, is Wilderness Heart? Simply put, the record successfully utilizes some classic-rock-song vernacular as a device to start a new dialogue. The sounds employed are time-honored and the images are well-established, but Wilderness Heart is very much an original album; it is a new classic rock record.



Black Mountain – “Old Fangs” – Wilderness Heart


Wilderness Heart
comes out September 14, 2010. Pre-order it here on Amazon .


Black Mountain – [Album]

Sunday, 27 January 2008

For someone who likes music as much as I do, it takes a lot to get me out of the house to see a band. All of that standing around for hours has to come with the promise of a fierce guitar solo, especially if we’re talking about going to a show on a weeknight. Still, I took a chance on Black Mountain at Pop Montreal a couple years ago and I wasn’t disappointed. The show was at Montreal’s Spectrum—an old theater where you can sit down and watch people jam out songs without your legs getting tired. I was fairly certain that Stephen McBean and crew were the real deal after listening to their self-titled debut, but any lingering doubt was gone by the end of the night. The heavy tunes were heavier, and the psych tunes were psych-er, and I had my jones for a guitar-show satisfied.

When I first got their debut record, it was the summer time, and I felt it was a good soundtrack in all the heat and humidity. It’s a diverse collection of songs: some straight-ahead rock tunes, some rooted by electronics, a few horns thrown into the mix, but as much potential I could see in Black Mountain, the record wasn’t growing on me in that same way that a sure classic does. There are some definite tunes on the debut (after all, it was enough to get me out to the show), but it felt all over the map. The moral of the story is, In The Future is exactly what I wanted the debut to be—a tight record of vintage rock’n’roll.

The record opens with "Stormy High," a huge riff backed with a droning organ and vocalist Amy Webber wordlessly singing along. Their comparisons to 70’s psychedelic bands are justified, and you could probably fool someone into thinking this was a reissue without much trouble. "Angels" is a perfect example of the band embracing the audience that is embracing them. The harmonizing of Webber and McBean has always been a differentiator for this band, and “Angels” adds to that with strings that could have come on loan from Oasis. If the production was any slicker, this could easily find itself in high rotation on the radio.

But that is just one slice of the bigger pie. "Tyrants," which is all over the webnet, is a mini psych excursion, almost a warm-up to the album’s centerpiece, "Bright Lights." Coming in at 16+ minutes, this epic piece justifies a double LP both for its length and sheer wickedness. This is the one you put on at 2 a.m. when you’re sitting on the couch with only candles and a blue haze keeping you company. After chanting "bright lights" with increasing paranoia, they break free with a galloping guitar riff, and you realize these guys are serious about this whole Black Mountain thing.

But "Bright Lights" is almost the end of the record, and getting from point A to point B is a satisfying listen. "Wucan" has a nice synth odyssey, sounding almost prog, but still much more rock that electronic. "Stay Free" is a more acoustic number, again very vintage sounding, and the short "Wild Wind" sounds like it could be a Wings outtake.

I had no idea what to expect before I heard their debut, and was fairly impressed when I got it. After waiting three years, I thought I knew what I was getting with this record, but I was a little off base. Black Mountain have put together a cohesive effort with a consistent tone to the whole record. This is a great record for late nights, and Sunday afternoons—a step forward by a great rock’n’roll band.

In The Future is out now on Jagjaguwar.

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