Review by Thom Jurek
During the nearly three years between Black Mountain's self-titled debut album and its sophomore full-length In the Future, there had been extensive touring, a first attempt at recording which proved to be a false start of sorts (though some of those songs ended up here), and a kind of development that would seem radical if these Vancouverites weren't so quirky to begin with. Certainly, the roots of this sound are evident on the debut album. It's loaded with trippy neo-psych folk and rock tropes. But these are counterweighted with a drenched-in-prog-and-Sabbath bombast that makes the title seem ironic. If not laugh out loud funny. That's right: prog rock and Black Sabbath-like riffery and knotty, multi-part structures worthy of Greenslade are all entwined with pixie-ish protocol, acid-laced folk (think Melanie meets Sandy Denny meets Grace Slick's early period duets with Marty Balin and Paul Kantner on the Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow and Volunteers). The weird thing is, despite its obvious nods to rock collections, including not only Sabbath's Master of Reality but Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick, Hawkwind's Warrior on the Edge of Time, Peter Hammill's entire Charisma period, Eloy's first three albums, Rush's 2112 (where some of these rather drenched-in-warped-myth lyrics were derived from; but then they're Canadians too), and Led Zep's Physical Graffiti, with a touch of the optimism of Thunderclap Newman and Graham Nash -- all is tempered by Neil Young's sleepy delivery, and all sometimes in the same song. The sheer heaviness of tracks like "Stormy High," that wails out of the gate with guitars in full pummel riffage, fuzzed out bassline, and floor tom, bass drum, hi hat fury are stretched out by layers of Mellotrons! Then, Stephen McBean and Amber Webber begin wailing wordlessly à la "Immigrant Song," before McBean takes the lead vocal and you're ready for your space rock pith helmet! Where's Michael Moorcock when you need him? He's about all that's missing. It gets more insistent before it lets up with the starting-in-fifth-gear "Tyrants," that winds and wends its way through a multi-dimensional journey densely packed with sonic wonkery, key and time changes, and the feeling of a journey through time and space for over eight minutes. The sheer sonic throb is balanced by long, droning Mellotron and analogue synth drones, tribal, chant-like drumming, and the pleading, world-weary, vulnerable voice of McBean. It's quite a thing, but it's only a precursor to the truly epic "Bright Lights" near the end of the set that rages on for nearly 17 minutes. Fuzzy electrics, shimmering acoustics, and trance-like keyboards flit in and out between the alternating vocals of McBean and Webber. The music picks up intensity, shifts direction numerous times, and careens across the rock and folkscapes of rock's history from the late '60s through the '70s with great focus, wit, and ambition. There are other things like this here, too, with the utterly beautiful and tender lysergic folk explorations in "Stay Free," where unplugged six-strings, tambourine, McBean's falsetto, and Webber's harmony are seamless, as of one voice. The lyrics are direct, but the sheer sparseness of the mix (organs hover in the backdrop) stands in such sharp contrast to "Wucan" and "Tyrant" that it's like a wake-up call from the ether. (Movie music directors, take heed: this is the one you want for those long reflective moments where the two main characters have parted to rethink their positions.) It picks up, but never too much; the bridge is wonderfully constructed with just enough ornamentation to take it up a notch texturally and dynamically. "Wild Wind," clocking in under two minutes could be a lost Kevin Ayers' outtake. It's only a shame it's so brief. "Evil Ways" -- no relation to the Santana number -- is all metallic stoner rock with rumbling, quaking tom toms, piercing guitars, and huge organs challenging one another to overcome the vocals. As atrocious as this all sounds, perhaps, it's actually quite wonderful and it works without faltering. For what it is, is a stunning extension of the root sound Black Mountain arrived with. Part of the credit has to go to John Congleton for his amazing mix. It's packed with stuff, but there's enough space here, and wonderfully warm atmospheres, to bring the listener right into the deeper sonic dimensions that Black Mountain is trying to create. That it's done without artificial sounding punch up or tons of digital effects makes it come together as a whole. There is no sophomore slump here. [A Deluxe Edition with three bonus tracks was also released.]
In the Future
Black Mountain's accomplished self-titled debut found frontman Steve McBean synergizing numerous local Vancouver talents along with his own grab bag of music sensibilities. To further up the ante, the band made little effort to shroud their classic rock fanaticism. Whatever you wanna call them-- revivalists, re-interpreters, or even rock fundamentalists-- that first record provided an engaging snapshot of late 1960s/early 70s AOR. With that in mind, sophomore effort In the Future faces the challenge of holding our attention amidst all these Guitar Hero games and Led Zeppelin reunions without puffing itself up to the ridiculous levels of more mainstream retro-stoners like Wolfmother and the Mars Volta.
Thanks to the emergence of side projects Blood Meridian and Lightning Dust, the curtain's been lifted, and suddenly Black Mountain sounds more complicated and conflicted than the bleary-eyed grin their debut flashed. The Debbie Downer pathos of Amber Webber, who until now had sounded like an afterthought on the band's recordings, spills over from her sobering Lightning Dust material, recorded with fellow Mountaineer Joshua Wells. Coupled with Blood Meridian exposing the bluesy id of bassist Matt Camirand, Black Mountain had no choice but to make room for these burgeoning personalities. While the debut grooved on a countercultural us v. them moral trip, Future raises the stakes considerably, leaving the band's musical talents to play catchup with their new material's epic-sized dimensions.
Simply juxtaposing Future opener "Stormy High" with the debut's first track "Modern Music" suggests that the band's more profound than playing Nintendo while high, but not entirely immune to "J.R. Tokin'" jokes. Starting with a lugubrious, "Hell's Bells"-style arpeggio before launching into stoner-metal chanty, McBean repeatedly belts the song's title as Wells's banshee howls in the background, foretelling McBean's lyric about "witches on your trail." A fitting way to kick off the album, "Stormy High" gently eases the listener into Black Mountain's increasingly fantastical world. The eight-minute "Tyrants," on the other hand, sounds like a Middle Earth baptism by fire. With its sprawling sections and gauntlet of brain-numbing riffs, "Tyrants"'s best analog would probably be "Don't Run Our Hearts Around." However, where the latter dims for hushed verses of traditional blues bellyaching, the former's eerie, calmer moments wrench the soul just as violently as the louder ax assaults.
Future provides a wide spotlight, and McBean's much more willing here to pass the shine to Wells when she's better suited for the part. "Queens Will Play" essentially beefs up Lightning Dust's threadbare palette of organ and guitar, changing a simple church house hymn into a menacing cathedral dirge. She even gets to carry the torch to the finish line with closer "Night Walks", a dreamy ballad that offers spiritual replenishment after a mystically taxing hour of dense music.
That's right, Future's hardly a smooth ride. Whether verified or not, drug use has always gone hand-in-hand with these guys, but here they either smoked too much and lost focus on some of these winding mini-sagas or remained painfully sober and sacrificed much of their debut's mind-freeing vibe. Black Mountain's strategic sequencing of long-track/short-track managed to keep listeners locked on, particularly for its dazzling first half. Future's valleys sag slightly lower, giving the listener less incentive to motor through this psych jungle. The sappy Spider-Man 3 soundtrack ballad "Stay Free" comes off the heels of the ho-hum "Wucan", a six-minute piece of all-too-canonized psychedelic sounds, and the nearly 17-minute (!) "Bright Lights" finds the band's creativity running on fumes by its midway point. Fortunately, buried in this massive time capsule you find some succinct nuggets, particularly the Tom Petty-esque swagger of "Angels" and crying-into-beer lurch of "Wild Wind". Ultimately, Future can't compete with the classic rock divinity that's been worshipped in countless high school parking lots and shag carpeted basements for the last 40 years, but you gotta love them for trying. After all, in a time when four rock gods reuniting for a one-off concert becomes the music story of the year, what can any of us mortals do?
-Adam Moerder, January 23, 2008