Black Mountain's Psychedelic Sprawl Needs a Roadmap

Vancouver's Black Mountain drew from a deep well of psychedelic-rock firewater when recording its self-titled debut, which was released in 2005. The group offered a rush of heavy, ethereal jams that bled Sabbath distortion into vintage '60s and '70s grooves. Black Mountain picked up critical steam, ultimately landing the act an opening spot on a Coldplay tour (a puzzling matchup, to say the least). Since then, individual Mountaineers have spent time working on various solo projects, including Pink Mountaintops, Blood Meridian, Lightning Dust, and Sinoia Caves. The band finally released its sophomore album, In the Future, this month, but it's hard to call this one worth the wait.

In the Future's warm, vintage sound can't be argued with, but its conceptual and musical superfluity hints at perhaps too much playing around in the studio. The classic prog-rock that permeates the record often feels unfocused and sprawling over the course of 60 minutes. A couple of songs hover near the 10-minute mark, while the head-scratching, shape-shifting "Bright Lights" lasts more than 16 minutes. This is a perfect example of the album's failings, as lead singer and guitarist Stephen McBean and vocalist Amber Webber sing the phrase "Bright light, light bright" repeatedly before launching into a seemingly random list of "h" words — hurried, hunters, helpless, hitting, etc. The band teeters on the edge of parodying the genres from which it usually manages to steal the best parts. It's one thing to cull the awesomeness of Rush, Sabbath, and Pink Floyd from their overwrought catalogues; it's another to overindulge in prog-rock and stoner metal cheese. Even the album's artwork, created by keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt, looks like a bad Mars Volta cover or a '70s Floyd poster. In The Future does have moments when the druggy puzzle pieces fit together perfectly, though, as on the slow-burning Southern rocker "Angels," the hazy, bass-pounding "Wucan," and McBean's acoustic ballad, "Stay Free."

Bass player Matthew Camirand says the band intentionally set out to do something different this time. "[We're] trying not to duplicate the first [disc] in songs or in the recording process, which is probably as important to us as writing the songs themselves," he explains. If Black Mountain is going to stumble artistically, its desire to innovate and experiment is at least noble. But Camirand also seems to confirm the notion that the band's eyes were bigger than its ears while recording In the Future. "We try to have as much fun as possible with the amps and the mics and the big effects boxes," he says. "The studio can be like a candy store to a kid if you aren't paying out the ass by the hour for it."

Black Mountain: Perpetuating prog-rock sprawl.
Jessica Miller
Black Mountain: Perpetuating prog-rock sprawl.

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As far as rock 'n' roll excess goes, things could be much worse; wanking a guitar off for 10 minutes isn't quite as self-indulgent as employing a 50-piece orchestra in a misguided effort to expand your sound. Black Mountain is currently on an intercontinental tour that offers an opportunity to cut down its more meandering songs to a manageable size. For now, though, In the Future's epic construction doesn't inspire awe so much as offer a reminder of how engaging Black Mountain can be with a little restraint. Progress is a good thing, but with a little self-editing, the band could be back on course, making the hypnotic, '70s-influenced rock that made it a fan favorite in the first place.

 
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