Remember the days before Napster, Kazaa, and BitTorrent? I hardly do either, but many of us can nostalgically look back upon the days where the decision-making process involving music purchases was an intelligible affair. Most of the time, one either was swayed into purchasing an album by hearing it on the radio, seeing it on television, or having a friend rave about it. There were no hip online forums to share and receive recommendations, file-sharing “top downloads chart” to mimic, or (*gasp*) music blogs to sample the latest and greatest acts. Being a diehard music fan, it actually makes me fortunate to grow up in the ’90s where I had all these resources available to me. Not because I do not respect the pure methods of acquiring musical taste, but because I would have likely driven my friends insane with music-related ramblings. Fortunately, the internet provides a place for niche-y growth; for utmost tolerance, people only read my prattle when they want to. Flashing back to these simplistic (or complicated, depending how you look at it) times – what if someone had no radio, television, or friends? Well, in their trip to the record store, they would likely base their purchase on two things: the name of the artist and the cover art on the release. The latter was commonly indicative of the mood and style of the album. Now, instead of being abstractly representative of the musical content, quality cover art is slowly becoming a lost art.
Though, in modern times, it is considered odd to buy an album solely for its artwork, when I first looked at the cover art for Black Mountain‘s second album, In the Future, I was both perplexed and amused. Just check it out for yourself here… and try not to get too dizzy. If I were not already a fan of Black Mountain prior to this release, I would have still looked into the band based on the cover alone. Perhaps it is the unique nature of the abstractive and dimensional qualities, but it would certainly catch my eye while sitting next to other albums with dull fonts and generic artwork. Even more impressively, the intricate, mind-bending art proves highly reflective of Black Mountain’s epic, prog-rock sound on In the Future. With a variety of psychedelic elements clashing with progressively ensuing structures of lengthy proportions, the songs on the album, like their respected art, seem to endlessly continue, with plenty of varying instrumental elements to appease even the most demanding of listeners. Enough with the relations to artwork though – let’s get to the most impressive aspect of In the Future: the music. Being a big fan of their self-titled debut album in 2005, I have been awaiting Black Mountain’s follow-up for quite some time. The critical response for their debut was was somewhat mixed; some critics were intimidated by the group’s ambitious involvement of blues and experimental psych-prog-rock, though others hailed it as an achievement that proved to be one of the best debuts of the year. I happened to be a part of the latter party, enjoying all 8 tracks. Their debut was a grower but, once the album’s memorability set in, it was more than worth the time involved.
One of the most glaring issues with creating a lengthy album is that, at times, the result may seem overbearing. Countless numbers of artists have mistakenly done this, turning possible gems into wasted opportunities because of duration alone. When I saw that In the Future was nearly an hour long, I admittedly held a small amount of fear. However, it only took one first-time listen of Black Mountain’s newest to relinquish such premature anxieties. Not once does In the Future feel bloated, overwhelming, or stylistically mundane; the five-piece from Vancouver pulls off an epic that is one of the first great releases of 2008. Despite being the enigmatic brainchild of the talented (and admirably bearded) Stephen McBean, his consistency has come to be of an expected nature. The breakout force that I find in In the Future comes in the form of Amber Webber. Her soaring, quivering vocals are extraordinary on several tracks, particularly the breathtaking “Queens Will Play”. As she recites several brooding lines over the chugging spur of a guitar, a slight strain of ominous synths, and a haunting organ, her level of gradual intensity is astonishing. “Demons may be hiding in our shadows,” she sings, depicting the song’s devilish mood and flow with eerie accuracy. Webber’s vocal range practically establishes the song, specifically when the song bursts into an explosive array of more involved guitars and organs in its final half-minute.
Like many songs on the album, “Queens Will Play” begins somewhat simplistically, eventually building upon layers of melody, until several effects of uplifted distortion and vocal dramatics are revealed momentously. The 16-minute “Bright Lights”, cumulatively the most impressive track of McBean’s songwriting career, serves as a good example of such structural intentions. For the first 4 minutes of the song, it begins rather traditionally and repetitively. However, shortly after the 4 minute mark, one can expect the final 12 minutes to be of epic proportions, from moments of invigorated guitars to sullen church-organ requiems. Yeah, it becomes easy to use the word “epic” quite a bit when describing Black Mountain. The adjective is perfect for their intricate sound. “Bright Lights” alone contains more variability in the song alone than one entire album for other artists; it is a true accomplishment. The more accessible “Stormy High” is also highly enjoyable, showcasing McBean’s gritty vocals and eclectic guitar-organ involvement in a more expandable light. For those who want to step even further into lead songwriter Stephen McBean’s experimental side, check out his other side-project/collective, the similarly named Pink Mountaintops. For now though, Black Mountain’s latest album, In the Future, has proven to be both a gratifying improvement and achievement. Unlike the mixed reception of Black Mountain’s debut, expect universal critical acclaim on their newest when it is released on January 21st. The material on In the Future is simply too impressive to pass up.
Black Mountain – Queens Will Play*
Black Mountain – Bright Lights*
Black Mountain – Stormy High*
*Tracks removed upon request