James Johnson sounds deranged, like a stark raving mad psychotic shouting at bystanders on a downtown corner during rush hour. On Wilderness’ latest album (k)no(w)here, he variously yelps and chants against a relentless and pounding onslaught of guitars and drums; though the vocals are frequently unintelligible, it’s pretty obvious Johnson isn’t singing about puppy dogs and romantic strolls in the park. It’s an album of foreboding and menace, with enough dread to darken even the most cockeyed optimist’s day.
The Baltimore-based band’s third full-length album was envisioned as a single musical piece, inspired by a collaboration with artist Charles Long at the Whitney Biennial earlier in the year. The eight “songs” on (k)no(w)here are indeed structured like parts of a larger whole: one song transitions into the next one without any break, guitar and bass lines and drum beats recur and repeat throughout both the individual songs and across the album, and Johnson’s vocal stylings (if that’s the right word) are consistent throughout.
With Colin McCann on guitar and occasional background vocals, Brian Gossman on bass and William Goode on drums, the music is aggressive and direct; there are very few extraneous notes or special musical pops and clicks here. The music isn’t suffocated under a heap of unnecessary musical filler; it’s a noisy album that somehow still manages to sound uncluttered and almost minimalist. It’s mostly loud as hell, sure, but not because piles of instrumental garbage were thrown on top.
The instruments are cleanly separated yet interweave to create the album’s unifying sound. McCann’s guitar figures prominently on nearly every track, such as in the sharp and ringing repetition of “(p)ablum” and “Soft Cage,” the stabbing and jagged accents of “Silver Gene” and “Own Anything,” and the cutting and deliberate guitar melodies carved out on “Chinese Whisperers.” Much-maligned bassists and drummers can console themselves with “(p)ablum” and closing track “…^…,” both of which feature a prominent base line and tribal drumming reminiscent of Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones.
A smooth crooner Johnson is not; his vocals vacillate between unhinged shouts and screams on “Soft Cage” and “Own Anything” to the wordless and indecipherable chants on “Chinese Whisperers.” His vocals are sometimes dragged out slower than the music, words being stretched to their breaking point and oddly enunciated. Certain phrases are repeated until they sound like either the rantings of a schizophrenic carnival barker or the awful truths shouted by someone who knows the score.
In keeping with previous albums, especially Vessel States, the songs can be read as political or social critiques (and it’s especially tempting to interpret the album this way, in light of its Election Day release date). What’s especially noticeable is the underlying tone of impending disaster and unavoidable catastrophe that runs throughout the album. Whatever the songs are specifically about, it’s pretty apparent that all sorts of bad shit’s about to go down, and consider yourself warned. “Here comes the new law” Johnson declares in “Strand the Test of Time,” ending with a warning to “Look out / History is on the rise.” Closing track “…^…” degenerates into similar warning, this time via a demented chant of “Cover your head / Swing low!”
If Wilderness can be faulted for anything on (k)no(w)here, it’s that the band is sometimes overly reminiscent of groups like PiL, The Pop Group circa Y, Fugazi, and, to my ears at least, The Jesus Lizard. Still, this is a minor complaint; (k)no(w)here is a challenging and innovative album that deserves notice, even if the whole shithouse is about to go up in flames.
by Eric Whelchel