Photograph by Ryan Walter Wagner

There is a moment – a silent pulse – nearly four minutes into ‘Rollercoaster’, just before the song careens headfirst over a cliff into a chorus, that nicely situates Black Mountain’s newest album, Wilderness Heart (out September 14 on Jagjaguwar). Standing at the edge of a vast expanse of critical acclaim and popular marketability, the band has opted for a tighter, more elemental sound, which remains at its throbbing best when driven by bombastic rhythms. On this, their third full-length release, Vancouver rockers Black Mountain continue to deliver their signature brand of heavy riffs and sonic swirls, a melange of psych-metal for the sophisticated stoner set. No doubt benefitting from the use of an outside producer for the first time, Black Mountain have released their most succinct and focused album yet. While this quality both enhances and detracts from the product as a whole, the band has once again succeeded in creating some shimmering and memorable songs that should appeal to anyone with a healthy rock pulse.

Lead singer Stephen McBean has described the album as both the band’s most folk and their most metal release to date. However, far from each song being a heaving mess of contradictions, as such a description might suggest, the band has here sought to traverse genres from song to song, while giving increased focus and concentration to each individual effort. Where the band had previously used malleable song structures to spread its swirling sounds across different musical styles within each song itself, an unfortunate consequence of the distinctive shift is a choppy and uneven feeling throughout the album. Here a blissed-out folk song, there a rampaging metal tune, now a wander into psychedelic forest, then back out the other side. Their talent in bending sounds is undeniably powerful, but this new approach is less successful, creating cracks in the sonic worlds that Black Mountain loves to create with each album.

Of course, the arrangement also serves to keep songs tight, and may even be the preferable one if you’re simply planning to pop these songs right into your iPod Shuffle. Indeed, there is a feeling throughout the album that the band is striving to create more accessible, marketable songs. The greater concern, though, is that the quality is not distributed so evenly across the different genres. Previously, wherever Black Mountain have let their songs drift in the cosmos, they have always been able to rely on pulsating riffs and rhythms to perform the same function as the Dude’s rug and tie each song together. This remains one of the band’s strengths, and is the reason why riff-heavy tracks like ‘Let Spirits Ride’ and ‘Wilderness Heart’ are standouts on this album. However, attempts at the same sorts of ambling sonic stretches are less effective in the album’s folkier songs (especially album closer ‘Sadie’ and the plodding ‘Radiant Hearts’), which tend to meander more aimlessly without the benefit of such a central pulse. Moving lyrical imagery and beautifully twinned vocals can only carry these songs so far in the absence of something that sustains the sound’s energy. Perhaps fittingly, given the album’s title, Black Mountain appear content to let Wilderness Heart die a natural death, going gently into that good night with the final two songs.

If you’ve come expecting the more consistent qualities of either of the band’s previous two critically-acclaimed releases, this will likely feel like a tailing off. However, there are still enough excellent individual songs and moments on Wilderness Heart to make it well worth shuffling to.

Black Mountain – Rollercoaster
Black Mountain – The Hair Song

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— , September 7, 2010    No Comments
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