Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Black Mountain - Into The Future

Black Mountain
In The Future (Jagjaguwar, 2008)
Grade: B

Download: Black Mountain - "Stormy High"
Download: Black Mountain - "Angels"

If every state in the union passes its own version of Proposition 215, then expect Black Mountain’s In The Future to replace any elevator muzak currently piping in doctor's offices across the nation. There’s certainly enough stoner-sludge-cum-blues-rock riffage, fantastical prog-rock keyboard flourishes, and just the right amount of indulgently epic heavy rock songs, to make users and squares alike party like it's 1975. Further cementing the drug connection is the fact that most of its members dig King Crimson and have day time jobs at North America's first Safe Injection Site. Even the name Black Mountain could be interpreted as a reference to a large pile of hashish.

Regardless of where the group derived its moniker, Black Mountain's follow-up to its self-titled debut confidently compartmentalizes most of the major acts that were played on FM radio stations back when the format was an underground phenomenon (but is now widely considered to be "classic-rock"). Which is to say, a lot of early 70s acts like Neil Young, Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin, and Black Sabbath. Especially Black Sabbath. So much so that the opening guitar crunch of first-single "Tyrants" perfectly emulates the imperial charge of Sabbath's "Children Of The Grave", right down to the chugging sense of doom which permeated Tony Iommi's classic riff. Earlier, on the serene "Angels", vocalists Stephen McBean and Amber Webber evoke Neil Young's lonesome-puppy enunciation and Grace Slick's resolute vibrato, respectively. Other times, Webber recalls Stevie Nicks, especially on mid-album track "Queens Will Play".

There are many other moments on the record which demonstrate Black Mountain's impressive dedication to classic-rock consolidation. The expert sense of imitation is In The Future's considerable strength and unfortunate weakness. The whole album oscillates between admittedly adept musicianship and frustratingly perfunctory song ideas. As a result, the record comes off as the musical Cliffs Notes to an entire decade. While bluesy ballad "Stay Free" has every whiskey-soaked ingredient to make for an essential tear-jerker, one could also turn any local revivalist radio station and hear the same song done thirty years earlier.

It would be remiss not to say Black Mountain are excellent, remarkable even, impressionists. Album highlights "Stormy High" and "Wucun" each contain an irresistible, sensual shuffling groove. As a result, both songs become raucous sing-alongs. But despite those highs, Black Mountain also fail to add any ingredients which would distinguish themselves as more than just classic-rock's faithful torchbearers. The aforementioned "Queens Will Play" starts out with an effective sense of dread, with subtle bass, guitar and organ work complementing the Webber's siren-like yowl. It's undoubtedly Webber's turn to shine, and the band admirably holds back in order to spotlight their bandmate's unimpeachable talent.

Instead of building upon that considerable foundation, the rest of the song meanders toward an anti-climatic conclusion. Similarly, "Bright Lights" strives to be a rocker of cinematic proportions, and definitely succeeds to some degree. However, by the end, the song ultimately fails to deliver the goods in a way which doesn't make the listener reflect upon the merits of groups other than the one to which you are currently hearing.

The problem with Black Mountain is that they're not derivative enough to dismiss outright, nor are they inspirational enough to merit appraisals as the second coming of AOR's heyday. Black Mountain are essentially an appropriation of an appropriation. Just as Black Sabbath and Led Zepplin and groups of their ilk owe a considerable amount of debt to the Delta bluesman who inspired them, Black Mountain owe a sizable debt to those bands who owe a considerable amount of debt to the Delta bluesmen who inspired them.

To put it more concisely, Black Mountain is a copy-of-a-copy. Most conventional wisdom suggests that the further away a copy is from its original, the less amount of quality it has to offer. Black Mountain defy that conventional wisdom by providing a panoramic view of a certain kind of music that people listened to while in a thick cloud of illegal smoke. While In The Future's stoner-friendly view misses the forest for the trees, the group also creates engaging revisionist rock which hopefully will lay the groundwork for more diverse releases in the future (the last track, the ambient "Night Walks", shows promise ). Until then, In The Future will just have to settle for being less visionary than its title portends.

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Black Mountain plays the 7th Street Entry on March 24th. Buy tickets here.

(Jonathan Graef)

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