We all have our weaknesses. Generally, in whatever shortcomings are present in our relationships, our professional lives, or our personal struggles, the problems are less interesting than the solutions. I know I have my faults as a music listener, and one of the biggest of these is getting too high on a record too fast. Maybe it’s the desire to have as much amazing music around me as possible that causes me to jump on something I like on first listen and grab it by the neck. But this is an easy fix, because I don’t review albums after the first listen. Also, I have an editor. But, this lusty infatuation is what happened with the quite good record Wilderness Heart. If you have the slightest inclination toward the darker and heavier rock of the 70’s, you may run into similar urges come your first listen. The feelings may even linger following. But like a woman whose personality flaws you ignore when the sex is great, Black Mountain also has an unavoidable weakness that you can only look past for so long. Ultimately, it keeps Wilderness Heart grounded and away from the perfection that seems so attainable for this band.
Now, that almost sounds like a negative opening, but don’t let me mislead you. Wilderness Heart comes packed with gems that bring Black Mountain beyond a genre project, which is what many could dismiss the Canadian five-piece as. Though never leaving the 70’s sounds their aesthetic is so firmly rooted in, there is a new pop sensibility apparent, replacing the long, moody jams of previous album, In The Future. “The Hair Song”, the album’s opener, even takes a step away from the psychedelic rock of Black Sabbath to a more rootsy, southern rock sound. Not that this is a strange leap for the band, who has always had catchy moments if only for the sheer familiarity people with naturally have to their retro reference points. But they actually pull off the shorter pop songs quite well. And though some fans may be turned off from the anti-stoner turn, as “The Hair Song” says, it’s “children having their fun with the blues.” Maybe they wanted to step away from being completely pigeon-holed before it was too late.
But much of their signature sound remains: The mean organ licks, bass distortion, and, of course, Stephen McBean and Amber Webber’s dual vocals. Having the songs function primarily as duets is one of Black Mountain’s great charms, which is only amplified by the improvement in strong songwriting. “Roller Coaster” is a gem that allows the two to draw out their words and milk the music for all its drama, all the while allowing their voices to intertwine with one of the best guitar riffs to be played since the genre’s hay-day. “Let Spirit’s Ride” shows they can do fast too. Sounding like Judas Priest, it’ll have the listener casually wondering if he’s accidentally praising Satan by humming along. But, Black Mountain would probably take “it’s so good it sounds evil” as the highest compliment.
Webber, in particular, is a joy to hear, specifically in light of her Black Mountain side project, Lightning Dust. If you’ve had the privilege of hearing that band, you wouldn’t think it’s the same vocalist. With Lightning Dust, her vibrato pushes the limits of tolerance, and creates a unique and stirring experience, akin to other challenging vocalists like Antony Hegarty or Joanna Newsom. But when singing heavy metal in Black Mountain, the same vibrato is overwhelmed; still present but not something you would comment on. Probably because so many of the female 70’s rock icons had similar shakes to their singing, maybe taking their cues from Grace Slick.
So what holds Wilderness Heart back? It’s the unfortunate inclusion of the stereotypical heavy metal ballads. You know the ones I’m taking about, with the finger-picked classical guitar riffs and the singer’s mane blowing in the wind, the waxed chest hair, the masturbatory vocals that try to show range without substance, and the painfully serious or sentimental lyrics. They aren’t much different than the rest of the album, either, but the hushed environment makes you pay attention. In particular, “Radiant Hearts” pushes into this parody territory rather than exhibiting homage. When the song begins with the line “children are playing around the explosions,” try not to roll your eyes. The fact that they take themselves so seriously here takes away from the fun of the whole project. Where most of Wilderness Heart showcases great pop sense through the language of early 70’s metal, “Radiant Hearts” risks derailing the entire thing.
The album’s two concluding quiet tunes are also weaker, but not nearly as distracting as the former. “The Space In Your Mind” even offers some of the best vocals on the album, ringing with sincerity. But ultimately, these slow songs remind the listener why punk happened. And Lightning Dust’s work proves that one of these vocalists, at least, can write a slow song with the best of them. So the solution for McBean’s glaring weakness, or possibly just the genre’s, should seem obvious: Don’t write ballads. The best part of living in 2010 is we have the entire history of human civilization to learn from, and when drawing from the past, we can revise the parts that didn’t work and improve. But I guess there is that other cliche, too. Something about repeating the mistakes of our fathers.
But even with the one, or sometimes two, track skips necessary for me to listen and fully enjoy the record, most of Wilderness Heart is tremendously enjoyable. It’s exciting because this Black Sabbath sound–though it will always be cool–isn’t particularly hip right now. You just don’t get to hear bands like Black Mountain if you’re not really looking for them. It’s catchy, reverent, fun, and, ultimately, satisfying. The jams are plentiful and, if you’re like me, might cause you to make outlandish claims after a couple listens. But, Wilderness Heart isn’t the best album of the year.
I just hope this wasn’t Black Mountain’s only chance to make a statement record, since they narrowly missed a home run. I can’t help thinking that while listening to the title track, with lines like “this is now or never” and “it won’t last forever.” Because, 70’s rock eventually became 80’s rock, and so it would seem Black Mountain’s sound would have to evolve, too. But, some more fine-tuning is in order before any major changes to this psych-metal-pop project’s sound. Because they’re capable of a masterpiece with what they’ve got. And with the right tweaking, this could have been it.