On Black Mountain’s “Wilderness Heart,” Stephen McBean Writes The Book

We’ve always known that Stephen McBean was ambitious.  Any questions about this were dispelled last year when album cover art for McBean’s other band, The Pink Mountaintops, looked like the jacket for a post-war classic novel.  He did not write the Great Canadian Novel with The Pink Mountaintops’ Outside Love, but with Wilderness Heart, the long awaited  realization of his main band Black Mountain, he’s done it.  Or at least produced an equivalent achievement — and something considerably more exciting.

When the single “Old Fangs” was released this summer, Black Mountain seemed to pick up where 2008’s Into The Future had deposited them, a band channeling greasy metal chords and organ riffs from the early ’70s.  “The Hair Song,” which popped up on their MySpace page in August, was a tantalizing mix of Led Zeppelin 3 and “Kashmir,” and we assumed it to be at least mostly tongue in cheek.  But McBean’s ambition is not to recycle the great early ’70s metal bands, but to at once surpass them while also capturing the breadth of what it used to mean to make an entire album.  You know, bombastic, slow-churning temples ‘o riff rock, followed by the folky duets with the sultry sounding female whose voice serves more as emollient than counterpoint, followed by fast galloping proto-punk and then one of those magical concoctions that could only exist in context within an album. You see, it is a firm belief around these parts that the album, as a delivery vehicle and unit of measurement, is as perfect a vessel for displaying music as the novel is for displaying writing.  To pull out songs from Wilderness Heart and not play the whole damn thing would be like summarizing Ulysses in PowerPoint.

If ever there was doubt that McBean’s guitar playing could deliver upon his ambitions, we find an answer in “The Way To Gone.”  (Questioning McBean’s guitar playing is not a put down, for after all, the guy aspires to the same league Led Zep were in, and they had a guitarist by the name of Jimmy Page.)  On Wilderness Heart, McBean’s fretwork is as impressive as his singing and songwriting, and the band as a whole — comprising the bassist and drummer from Blood Meridian, not to mention the Pink Mountaintops and other projects — shows evidence not just of practice but of all the scrimmages they’ve played.

Tulip Frenzy World Headquarters has grokked on Black Mountain since their arrival some years back, loved the way McBean and the band alone seem to have been able to capture the No Wave sound of the late ’70s (“Bicycle Man” could have been an Eight Eyed Spy outtake), loved how they could fold Sly and the Family Stone call-and-response vocals into a song like “Druganaut,” loved the way they seemed to have been immersed in albums like Station To Station and, in the guise of the Pink Mountaintops, Pere Ubu’s Modern Dance.  We have not loved quite so much the Black Sabbath/Cactus Seconal riffs, but admire McBean for sticking to his guns.  Live, they’re interesting in part for what a mild-mannered presence McBean is, hiding behind his beard, his guitar, and the microphone stand; the fierceness he shows in the studio slips in real life, like some Wizard of Oz mask that gets dropped when the curtain’s pulled back.

We’ve been waiting for Wilderness Heart the way last year we waited for Outside Love — wanting evidence that Stephen McBean and Black Mountain could pull together the album their ambitions promised.  Consider it delivered.

One Response to “On Black Mountain’s “Wilderness Heart,” Stephen McBean Writes The Book”

  1. […] and folk and punk.  It’s a pretty great combination, and when Wilderness Heart was released Tulip Frenzy rejoiced.  We like the formula — Seconal riffs followed by Sandy Denny folk followed by real […]

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