Thursday, September 9, 2010
[pitchfork.com] "Is it safe for the cowards to do what they've already done?" It's a rhetorical question, of course, but coming from the well-bearded mouth of Stephen McBean, the sentiment is especially pointed. For in his 10-plus years of making music, McBean has never been one to retrace his steps, venturing outward from the dirgey folk-rock of Jerk With a Bomb to the ever mercurial noise-pop of Pink Mountaintops and the earthquaking boogie of his most successful outfit to date, Black Mountain. But even the popular perception of Black Mountain as 1970s-style riff-mongers is unfairly myopic, with the seeming anomalies in their discography-- the carefree jangle pop of "No Satisfaction", the hypno-drone trance of "No Hits", or the raised-lighter sing-along "Stay Free"-- proving just as prevalent as the Black Sabbath worship. In their heart of hearts, Black Mountain are really just mellow hippies, but ones who aren't afraid to deploy heavy artillery to assert and protect their way of living. (Run their hearts around at your own risk: If their philosophy could be displayed on a VW microbus bumper sticker, it would read "Make Love Then War.")
On the band's third album, Wilderness Heart, there's a more concerted effort to reconcile the band's inner darkness and light, a symbiosis reflected in their choice of producers: Randall Dunn, best known for his work with doom-metal giants Boris and Sunn O))), and D. Sardy, whose lengthy list of multi-platinum clients includes Oasis and the Rolling Stones. Couple those big-name producers with the decision to record in L.A., not to mention their mainstream toe-dip on the Spider-Man 3 soundtrack, and all signs point to Wilderness Heart's being Black Mountain's go-for-broke commercial bid. But while the new album is certainly more streamlined and luminous than 2008's weighty, apocalyptic In the Future-- no 17-minute prog-rock suites to be had here-- the sharper focus doesn't dilute the band's cannabis-clouded cool.
In FM-radio terms, Wilderness Heart is Black Mountain's Houses of the Holy, an album that shimmers as much as it bulldozes, humors as much as it rages, while flexing a more pronounced pop sensibility that mostly works in the band's favor rather than to their detriment. And just as John Paul Jones' organ-based set piece "No Quarter" was arguably the highlight of Houses, Wilderness Heart's MVP is keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt-- his thick, Deep Purplish tones on the Camaro-rattling "Old Fangs" prove heavier than the glam-metal riff chugging underneath it, and instead of dropping in the de rigueur guitar solo, the band lets him slather on dreamy layers of laser-beam synth drones. Likewise, his Mellotronic backdrops on the stoner-folk reveries "Radiant Hearts" and "Buried by the Blues" refashion these downcast acoustic interludes in a more majestic light.
Schmidt's spotlight turns are indicative of a broader shift in Black Mountain's M.O., where the band is becoming less reliant on a monolithic power-chord attack and playing more to the strengths and subtleties of its individual members. Sure, Wilderness Heart boasts Black Mountain's fiercest thrasher to date in "Let Spirits Ride"-- which takes the proto-speed-metal riff of Black Sabbath's "Symptom of the Universe" for a joyride-- but the real revelation is the playfully loose, stutter-grooved "The Hair Song", which despite being built upon contorted acoustic-guitar strums and slides, hits as hard as anything else in the band's canon. The song also charts the increasing confluence of McBean and Amber Webber's voices-- where they were initially presented as stark contrasts, the two are now practically finishing each other's sentences. And in some cases, Webber even steals the song from de facto frontman McBean, her chorus turn on "Rollercoaster" elevating the track out of its sludgy morass.
For an album that presents a more assured, swaggering Black Mountain, it's a minor disappointment that Wilderness Heart doesn't so much climax as gradually wind down, without a show-stopping finale to crown the victory lap. But even in their quietest moments, the band can still leave you unsettled-- the closing track may be the first Black Mountain acoustic ballad dedicated to a girl, but not coincidentally it's a name ("Sadie") strongly evocative of the Manson murders and the tenuous line between blissful, free-loving hippiedom and violent anarchy. And as the song fades out into an ominous tribal-stomp procession, you're still not sure which side Black Mountain are going to lean toward next.
— Stuart Berman, September 9, 2010
Posted by Dan Goldin at 3:26 AM