Monday, January 21, 2008

Record Review: Black Mountain

Black Mountain
In the Future
NQL Rating System Rating: Very Good

I grew up on classic rock (Hendrix, Zeppelin, The Doors) and jam bands (the Dead, the Allman Brothers, Phish), so it should be of little surprise that I dig Black Mountain, whose druggy album cuts stretch as long as sixteen minutes and rarely conclude before three. But where their first, self-titled album smacks of Sabbath (apologies; the comparison is inescapable) and Zeppelin, In the Future strikes me as more Floyd ca. Animals with more emphasis given to that record's darker corners.

In the Future baits and switches with opener "Stormy High," a tune that couldn't really have been called anything else, and which contains the most striking, immediate, pleasing addition to the Black Mountain repertoire: keys, glorious keys. After "Stormy High," the band dials things down on "Angels," a sensible mid-tempo number that leads to the quick of Future: lead single "Tyrants" and should-be-next-single "Wucan," the latter of which is a straight acid jam employing the hookiest guitar-and-keys interplay I've heard in some time, not to mention perfect use of vocalist Amber Webber. Drenched in echo, her voice fades in and out of the top of the mix as Stephen McBean (vox, guitar) and Jeremy Schmidt (keys) anchor the middle. To some, the staid rhythm will be a detriment, but to these ears the locked-in groove lends the track a propulsive openness that allows Schmidt's righteous solo the room it needs to stretch its legs.

At this point, the album's overall dynamic reveals itself as quite predictably loud-quiet-loud. That I see this as a flaw at all should speak volumes about the strength of Future's songs in sum. That I feel it necessary to point out that the sequencing of these ten songs could've been just a bit more creative is most likely my failing, not Black Mountain's. And I'm actually fine with the tracklist's undulations, obvious though they are. I don't think I could handle nine more "Wucans."

Following the aching "Stay Free" (which recalls Jagjaguwar labelmates The Besnard Lakes) and the super-noir "Queens Will Play," the album ends with a flourish of strength. "Bright Lights"—a living, breathing behemoth of a song—is daunting when viewed in an iTunes playlist but rather delicate and intimate when listened to, rivaling the proggiest of prog in scope and ostentation. But "Bright Lights" is one of the most listenable sixteen-minute songs I've heard, elucidating enough ideas to hold one's interest for its duration—an album-at-once, or at least an EP.

But the song I love most, and the one I return to, is closer "Night Walks," the perfect comedown to a flawed-in-all-the-right-ways album. Churchy organs drone and swell beneath Webber's pristine vocals as she sings, "Night walks with me / and the moon leaves me just enough light to see, / and my shadow my only company. / And it moves just like me, / and it walks just like me," suggesting a doppelganger, an "other" that's always with you, attached to your psyche in an elemental fashion. In literature and folklore the doppelganger is most often sinister, an "evil twin," but for Black Mountain the doppelganger is a friendly companion, a hiking buddy who knows your every step, but is also that part of you which craves its hiding place, its alone time, the quietest, darkest part of the night that sticks around even in daytime.

--Brian Herrmann

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