Monday, January 28, 2008

in the future

three januarys ago, a widely read, distinguished music zine named pitchfork media called black mountain's self titled debut a "best" record, making the band a household name (in austin, chicago, and my headphones at least). black mountain is a grateful debt paid to late 60s guitar rock (with interest), music of the future that owes it all to the past. a common story, really, but black mountain digs deeper and, consequentially, offers greater rewards for the studious. anchored by frontman stephen mcbean's dynamic and pathos-ridden voice (imagine jason molina without the deadpan), black mountain is reverential yet inventive, blowing all misconceptions away with "modern music," a saxophone-laden anti-pop track, or "druganaut," a funky dead jam, determinedly drafting a different blueprint for this band. it is doubly ironic, then, that in the future, black mountain's second album (and, nominally, its most forward-reaching) is less progressive than their debut, and much more rewarding.

from its first notes, it is clear that black mountain is channeling something deeper for their future. they've shed their playful and nervy attitude, as well as their saxophonist, for a future more ancient than possible, keeping pace with heavy retro-rockers everywhere. mcbean and fellow bandleader amber webber eschew the lighthearted creativity of black mountain, shelving its derring-do and toe-treading in favor of a more mainstream aesthetic of gritty prog-rock. it's both a commercial and aural shift. in the future is a satisfying, reverb-rich epic of crunching guitars and tremulous wails that begs to be louder and longer - a progressive hard rock album that was released forty years too late (and arrived right on time).

along with their new brooding stares (check out this photo) and heavier tunes, black mountain have embraced an appropriately dire outlook. jagjaguwar's press release compares the band's sophomore album to freshman year of high school, a supposedly liberating time, "the first real taste of independence in the quest for absolute freedom." last time i checked, the first year of high school was a truly frightening experience, choked with budding pituitary glands and vicious cliques, and in the future is a much better soundtrack of anxiety and rebellion than of independence. like an alienated adolescent, in the future is moody and disenchanted, an exorcism and escape. there's no cheekiness in the title of "stormy high" - it's the national anthem of a stoned fantasyland. this is outcast rock for kids who played dungeons & dragons, then retreated into a smoky haze.

what black mountain have dreamed up is a post-apocalyptic dark ages, with heroes, villains, and crunching guitars. like an eight minute dystopian vignette, "tyrant" (the future's ostensible single) is a morality play acted through dynamics, a ham-fisted loud-soft-loud-soft "effigy" for the new millennium. "tyrant" is still brutal, an aural rendering of one likely apocalypse that is delivered like a B+ science fiction screenplay, emotive without any attempt at finesse. (on the other hand, who ever wanted subtlety from a hard rock futurist nightmare?) "tyrant" delivers the goods, a neat little package of guts and guitars sweetened by amber webber's prophetic howling, so evocative that you can, if you close your eyes, see her renting her garments and vowing vengeance on the cruel dictator in a wide, pan shot of the wreckage of her burnt house (appropriately tolkienesque, i feel).

though black mountain have retired some of the tools from their self-titled, in the future does feature other important developments, like that of amber webber. in a role expanded from her relegated use on black mountain, webber's vocals consistently shape songs and define their most rewarding moments. her wailing on "tyrant" and "bright lights" form those songs' cruxes, and her solo, alice-in-weirdland "queens will play" - though it suffers of a progression that promises more than its payoff delivers - is darkly portentous and heavy. webber still does regular duty on harmonies, but even then she works in tandem with mcbean, providing tantalizing and haunted vocals that accentuate and enrich his own. their interplay is one of in the future's best features, her keening laments and harmonies really filling out their sound.

what, despite its flaws, makes in the future such an appealing album? well, for one thing, black mountain go totally medieval on our asses, ditching the quirky 60s amalgamation for a solid shot of hard rock, no chaser. no surprise that they were invited on the last queens of the stone age tour; in the future is the best kind of stoner metal, luxuriously heavy and plush with intensity. the album starts on the right foot with "stormy high," a swaggering neo-viking war march that only improves with volume, a characteristic the album shares. fuzzball "evil ways" lingers , thanks to a screeching guitar and mcbean's raw vocals, and the ballad "angels" shows off a different side of the band entirely. at the tail end of in the future is black mountain's greatest opus t0 date - the sixteen minute "bright lights." it starts gently, switching "bright light" and "light bright" around lyrically, mcbean and webber chanting ritually, and abruptly lurches into fifth gear, bellicose and bristling for a fight before dissolving into a dreaded spacey-pedal-fest, a bad decision that it never fully recovers from, though it puts up a good show - the last minute and a half of "bright lights" might be the best on the record.

in the future is a more successful album than black mountain, for its commercial appeal as much as its sonic one - richer, deeper, and blissfully heavier than anything their debut could have suggested, in the future is the work of more attuned yet less confident artists. my own enjoyment of in the future notwithstanding, it is a stylistic regression for black mountain, a hedged bet, regurgitating the past for fresh ears. slavishly constructed, this is an easily digestible homage liberally slathered with inspiration, instead of the other way around. no small part of in the future's importance is this eponymous conundrum: if this is the music of the future, why does it sound so much like the past? if anything, black mountain is the future, lessons learned from ancient masters, reinvigorated and refreshed, and not merely an accomplished mimicry. in the future apes the old and calls it the new like some orwellian thought program, a self-imposed verbal hurdle that is never quite cleared.

"stormy high" & "tyrant"

follow this sweet little .gif to jagjaguwar's online store.

black mountain embark on their north american tour on thursday in seattle. they play your city ___.

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