Mountain Music 

Ability to write simple, effective songs sets Black Mountain apart from retro-fetishists

Working with time-honored elements of prog and folk-rock, the Vancouver, B.C., quintet demonstrates that collective spirit doesn’t have to dampen individuality.

Communal frenzy rarely comes as tuneful and specific as Black Mountain’s new full-length In the Future. Working with time-honored elements of prog and folk-rock, the Vancouver, B.C., quintet demonstrates that collective spirit doesn’t have to dampen individuality. Like Brooklyn experimentalists (and label-mates) Oneida, Black Mountain display a concern with texture and pacing that never sounds retro or formulaic. If Oneida evoke jazzy English prog-rockers The Soft Machine, Black Mountain want to be King Crimson or Meddle-era Pink Floyd—they’re ambitious.

Black Mountain formed in 2005. Members came from groups such as Jerk With a Bomb and The Pink Mountaintops, both of which have been part of Vancouver’s Black Mountain Army, a loose collective of musicians and artists. As bassist Matthew Camirand explains, “It just came at a time when everybody’s bands were kinda breakin’ up, and we always wanted to get stuff together, so it was good timing.”

With Stephen McBean’s trance-inducing vocals occasionally doubled by Amber Webber’s unearthly high notes, and Led Zeppelin riffs co-existing with echoes of Neil Young and Lou Reed, Black Mountain’s self-titled 2005 debut took prog up to at least 1997, if not the current era. In the Future is similarly wide-ranging, with Webber coming to the fore on the gorgeous “Queens Will Play.”

“It’s a weird mix of people in this band,” Camirand says. (The group also includes drummer Joshua Wells and keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt.) “We dig a lot of older stuff, much more than what’s goin’ on today. I like The Byrds, the country-rock stuff, and Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Amber really likes Melanie and a lot of great old female pop singers.”

In the Future begins with a classic prog riff in 7/4 time, throws in a wordless incantation overlaid with organ, and climbs the scale into infinity. “Tyrants” sports another monster riff that gives way to an overstated section in triple time and a brief Mellotron and acoustic-guitar interlude. Like Yes or King Crimson, the band has a kitchen-sink aesthetic, and makes powerful program music.

“In some sense, playing music is basically like living out your own little rock ’n’ roll fantasy,” Camirand says. “It’s something all people do, right? They want to pretend they’re just like their hero, they wanna do it. It’s pretty funny when we write songs sometimes, because it’ll be like, ‘Oh shit, that sounds like the Wu-Tang Clan or whatever.’ It comes out of how different we are, how you’ll hear something in your head that the person next to you maybe doesn’t.”

Certainly, “Wild Wind” recalls David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream,” right down to its casual piano chords and blithe tone. At 1:39, it’s the shortest song on In the Future, and leads into the 16-minute opus “Bright Lights.” Liturgical organ, fat bass lines and a general air of imminent catastrophe make the track a standout. It’s grand, silly and perfectly controlled, and its air of wide-eyed wonder proves that Black Mountain fit into the tradition of great West Coast psychedelic bands such as The Grateful Dead.

“I don’t know if it’s in the water, but it could be the water,” Camirand says of the group’s Vancouver home. “The fact that we’re totally situated in this beautiful oasis of mountains and ocean and islands definitely has an effect on our worldview, our lifestyle and what we do.”

The record’s highlight might be the stately waltz “Stay Free,” where McBean’s tie-dyed tenor sounds wistful and eternally lost. “There comes a time to quit / To quit all that running,” he sings. Webber’s unearthly vibrato evokes ’70s singer Melanie’s lost innocence on “Queens Will Play,” likely In the Future’s creepiest moment. “We’ve all seen tomorrow / And there’s truth in what they say,” she sings. “Demons may be hiding in our shadows.”

It’s a subtly tortured collection whose collective impact could be greater than that of any individual songs. Whether or not the group’s sometimes inexpressive lyrics (“Evil Ways” features the line, “It ain’t easy but you got to change your evil ways”) register, the keyboards soar, the guitars snake and Webber keens like the sexy earth mother of Robert Crumb’s hallucinogenic daydreams.

What sets Black Mountain apart from retro-fetishists is their ability to write simple, effective songs. “Bright Lights” comes across like a classic Pink Floyd composition, while “Angels” is as spare and catchy as an early Neil Young tune. Too, the record displays the very attractive paranoia the psychedelic experience has always thrived upon. “It wasn’t the doctors who fed us the pills / Watch for the ones who don’t crack,” McBean warns on “Stormy High.”

So it’s classic rock, which Camirand defines expertly. “Hendrix drums and loud Clarence White guitars,” he says. “It’s blue-collar and layman. Not like these days. The ’80s sound dated now, but whatever’s hip and huge now is gonna sound dated next year, you know.”

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