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Black Mountain - Wilderness Heart

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Artist: Black Mountain

Album: Wilderness Heart

Label: Jagjaguwar

Review date: Sep. 13, 2010

What, really, was the difference between Nirvana and Nickelback? Context, attitude, musicianship? It’s a silly question, but one that Black Mountain invites at its worst. And the band is at its worst on Wilderness Heart. Which isn’t saying much — it’s still clever, skillful and complex — except that this album is awfully cheesy, and the proportion of the purely enjoyable to the "now why would they do that?" is unsettlingly low.

Black Mountain has covered a lot of ground between the parched, paranoid stoner rambles of its debut and 2008’s moody In The Future, which broadened the group’s horizons without ditching the roots: more electronics, more symphonics, more variety. On Wilderness Heart, that ethic of exploration continues, but all the sounds in the mix feel overextended, as though the band is throwing them out without any master logic, seeing what sticks. ("It’s our most metal- and most folk-oriented venture so far," says singer Stephen McBean.)

Nothing wrong with that approach, but it’s telling that Wilderness Heart is best where it recaptures the relative austerity of the debut, even in a sort of maximalist fashion. "Old Fangs," for instance, is a rollickingly heavy fuzz blossom, all crusty momentum and remind-me-what-decade-this-is synth wobble, a little aggressively significant but still a good time. On the title track, Amber Webber’s alarmed yowl both rides and cowers at the big lumbering crunch behind her, and the effect is nearly visceral, almost making meaning out of that folk/metal juxtaposition. Almost.

But the rest is either outmoded, fear-mongering chugalug metal or awkwardly fetching country balladry. "The Hair Song" is a sophisticated composition, but all its elements — the boy-girl vocal tradeoff, the faint woodwind sounds — add up to nothing so much as the forgettable mid-’90s roots-rock of someone who toiled for a few years in the shadow of Collective Soul, then called it quits. "Radiant Hearts" is technically solid and lyrically embarrassing. It doesn’t help that McBean sounds like he’s sneering almost every line he sings.

The farther it strays into new territory, the older and duller and more dubious Wilderness Heart sounds. The intersection of folk and metal is something worth exploring, and one in which a band exactly like Black Mountain could carve out a zeitgeist-sized statement, and that’s just what’s missing here. It’s almost missing so deliberately that you suspect that that’s the point… but then the next song comes on and you wonder if Black Mountain was ever making a statement at all, or if it’s always gotten by on being completely wrong for its time.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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In the Future

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Find out more about Jagjaguwar

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