Black Mountain Wilderness Heart

[Jagjaguwar; 2010]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: classic rock, stoner rock
Others: QOTSA, Pink Mountaintops, Black Sabbath

An unmistakable whiff — deliberate or otherwise — of butt-rock announces the arrival of Wilderness Heart, Black Mountain’s third album. With a song title like “The Hair Song,” likely a knowing reference to a deservedly maligned sub-genre, Black Mountain come perilously close to contemporary rock radio tedium, with a riff that owes as much to Zeppelin as it does Days Of The fucking New. Any hesitation or suspicion dissipates quickly enough, once prolific, perennial front man Stephen McBean breaks into a refrain of “Bang, bang the drum/ Children having their fun with the blues.” Subsequent track “Old Fangs” includes another reflexive reference, an exhortation to “Play those death-wish chords.” It’s clear that — indie approval be damned — McBean is having fun with rock ‘n’ roll conventions. With songs about songs, that hoary ground tread by dead-in-the-eyes lifers like Bob Seger, Black Mountain fearlessly push forward, finding ways to recontextualize such cliché material.

Ever the heretical evangelical, McBean — along with co-lead Amber Webber, who, depending on the moment, evokes a range of lady rockers from Cherrie Currie to Ann Wilson — preaches the theology of rock ‘n’ roll throughout, while finding new wrinkles in the dusty form. “Rollercoaster,” an expertly wrenching bit of domestic melodrama, seethes with anger and disappointment at the failures of human relationships. An unexpected lyric like “Family values have ruined this space” takes on additional meanings outside the context of the song. Webber responds, “I will cradle you beneath my wings,” sounding like she’s broadcasting direct from Valhalla. The reversed implication here, that traditional values have ruined rock music, is important to note; traditionalism has served Black Mountain well so far in their career, and this redemptive, cradling embrace — this reclamation, even — of a disreputable genre is intertextually woven throughout Wilderness Heart.

From the Emerson Lake and Palmer stadium keyboards on “Old Fangs” to the “Paranoid,” proto-metal riff that propels “Let Spirits Ride,” Black Mountain wear their influences less ironically than ever before. This single fact isn’t always a positive factor on Wilderness Heart; In The Future, Black Mountain’s previous album, dug deeper into stoner-rock soil, with songs that spilled over into double-digit lengths. Wilderness Heart is cleaner-sounding, more concise, but also slightly less interesting. Its flabby sequencing pairs “Buried By The Blues,” one of the album’s few ballads, with the mid-tempo, Southern-rocking “The Way To Gone”; neither song is offensive, but together they rob Wilderness Heart of whatever momentum the Vancouver band had built up over the course of the album’s A-side.

Appropriately, the title track is also one of the album’s most self-referential; McBean sneers to Webber, “You’ve got to run fast/ ’Cause this won’t last forever,” and Webber responds by telling him that she wants “to live prehistoric.” Black Mountain rip through the song’s final third, with an 80s-metal guitar solo leading into a stoner drone and an apocalyptic synth-choir, before McBean and Webber come back together, the dust of rock ‘n’ roll ages “[crumbling] right off of [their] clothes.” It would have made for a ferocious and stunning close, but the album sticks around for another couple cuts. Not that those final songs are lacking in quality, they just sound weak in comparison as sensitive slow-burners.

Whatever Black Mountain lacks in originality they more than make up for in conviction. Wilderness Heart won’t likely be remembered as their best album, but ‘best,’ as a classification, is counter-intuitive to such a fervently revivalist bunch. Black Mountain understand their chosen form better than any other contemporary stoner rock bands still running. McBean makes Josh Homme sound like a pretender to the Stone-Age throne; in a just world, McBean would be forming supergroups with ex-Zeppelin members, overseeing the development of up-and-coming bands. But that kind of recognition and expectation could only chip away at Black Mountain. Stoner rock’s a nerdy, outcast genre, and marginalization ensures that Black Mountain can keep recording the realest shit their rock-god progenitors never wrote. And there isn’t much that’s more admirably rock ‘n’ roll than that.

Links: Black Mountain - Jagjaguwar

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