Black Mountain, that slightly-off group of five British Columbian heads, own their love of the ’70s like no other band today- even counting those various throwback acts, still out on the road under an old brand name, featuring only one original, remaining member. It’s not just that 2005’s Black Mountain sounded like the ‘luded-out, ramshackle collection recorded by some Pacific-Canadian sect of the Weather Underground that never got that final communiqué, or that 2008’s gauntlet-throwing In the Future, with its melding of Animals-esque claustrophobia and Iommian thunder, had an album cover you could swear was designed by Hipgnosis (whoa); Black Mountain have hit pay dirt in stoking a kind of spooky-ooky sense of mystery that once accompanied the release of untitled Jimmy Page productions. The sonic cues are all there: riffs, album art, lots of hair. Black Mountain is leader Stephen McBean’s living testament to ’70s album rock and, if you think about it, is kind of like a Monster Magnet who is cool enough to have a girl want to hang around.
One can’t listen to Wilderness Heart without thinking, then, of the sort of artistic detour records that big rock bands made during the ’70s; with its relative lack of balls-out rockers, Heart is sort of the band’s Led Zeppelin III, or, perhaps more accurately, Black Mountain Vol. 4. We have ourselves the undeniable combination of palm-muted riffs, Deep Purple organ-grinding and slippery Genesis synths in lead-off single “Old Fangs” and in “Let Spirits Ride,” a galloping rocker with an unhinged, yet studied solo, straight out of “Paranoid,” yet this is not the defining sound of Wilderness Heart. Instead, it’s the acoustic guitar and Mellotron, the kinds of instrumentation that generally defined the most skippable songs in a ’70s rock monolith’s catalog; recall, on Vol. 4, if you can, “Laguna Sunrise.” How about “Changes?” Yeah, but only because of how bad it is.
Wilderness Heart’s songs aren’t quite that dire; “Radiant Hearts” featuring Vangelis’ late ’70s synth textures while McBean and mystery rock chick/world’s-most-bored-performer Amber Webber intertwine some pseudo-nuclear folk lyrics over tense acoustic guitar and “Buried by the Blues” is the kind of slowpoke, ambling Neil Young thing the band showed they were capable of on Black Mountain– with Mellotron. “The Space of Your Mind” shows Black Mountain faltering a bit, with McBean singing and strumming in his best David Gilmour; it could be the least-memorable track they’ve ever recorded. Album-closer “Sadie” makes it worth your while; over mournful acoustic, McBean urges the titular character to come back home and the song builds into dramatic floor tom hits and again, as best as my ears can tell, human voices run through a Mellotron.
Wilderness Heart’s flaws, then, are the same ones that have colored the rest of the band’s catalog; there are some beautiful sonic landscapes created here, though the songs aren’t strong enough to transcend their status as interesting, atmospheric studies in rock gloominess. “The Hair Song” doesn’t stay in one place for long and has some grand-sounding, “Kashmir” synths and “Old Fangs” certainly sounds convincing when Webber and McBean compel thee to “Play those death wish chords.” The lyrics do them no favors; on “Radiant Hearts,” Webber and McBean sing, “Prancing like queens/ Madmen in corsets/ Paul is waiting for someone to get bent/ Chasing the arrows, they swoon while they fly/ Can’t you hear me calling your name,” recalling the lyrical nothings Geezer Butler was writing for “Symptom of the Universe.” Still, it was a gorgeous thing to hear Webber, that spooky, spooky chick, take that vocal turn back in ’05 on “Druganaut” and it’s just as pleasant to hear her unironically own the phrase “Well, Mama, I can’t handle no more!” in the title track; Black Mountain don’t seem to be the most fun group of people in the world, but, maybe unintentionally, at their best, they are.
by Chris Middleman