The Groove Seeker: Black Mountain’s Wilderness Heart

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Black Mountain: Wilderness HeartBlack Mountain: Wilderness Heart (Jagjaguwar, 9/14/2010)

Black Mountain: “Wilderness Heart”

[audio:|titles=Black Mountain: “Wilderness Heart”]

Thanks to endless comparisons to bands such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath, and tagged as a band obsessed with ’70s stoner rock, Vancouver-based rock outfit Black Mountain has a lot to live up to.  But beyond the umbrella terminology and exhaustive retro comparisons, the group doesn’t receive enough credit for striking a modern chord with mainstream and underground-minded audiences alike.

Now the band is back with its third release, Wilderness Heart, doing what it does best: putting the signature Black Mountain stamp on the fundamentals of rock and roll.

Composed of drummer Josh Wells, keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt, bassist Matt Camirand, vocalist Amber Webber, and guitarist and lead vocalist Stephen McBean, Black Mountain wears its influences on its sleeve, but it’s not as self-indulgent as it sounds. Though the band’s more nostalgia-driven tunes have come to define its critical success, the overall sound is tastefully stripped down, forgoing crotch rock for a more intelligent sound.

Wilderness Heart is a big step for the band’s direction and sound.  The album is Black Mountain’s first effort with outside producers on board — David Sardy (Zombieland soundtrack) and Randall Dunn (Secret Chiefs 3) — moving it in an unexplored direction.

The result is a set of cleaner and more polished tunes.  Many of the psych- and progressive-rock arrangements are scaled back, and though the record has a slew of heavy hooks, the band’s folk sensibilities are taken to a new level. McBean’s voice is as distinct and versatile as ever, capable of reverberating hope on folk ditties like “The Space of Your Mind,” but also able to capture menacing urgency on rockers like “Let Spirits Ride.”

On album opener “The Hair Song,” McBean’s bluesy vocals showcase a newfound relationship with Webber.  Though Webber has taken a larger vocal stance since the group’s self-titled debut in 2005, this riff-raffing between the two is entirely new, giving the group a new folk-pop dimension.  But the song still hits hard; the acoustic and countrified electric-guitar licks may remind listeners of Led Zeppelin III, but it’s the rhythm section that really carries the tune along.

Webber has proven herself a timeless rock vocalist on past records and recently with Wells on their more melodic and softer side project Lightning Dust. She owns the album’s title track, “Wilderness Heart,” and fans may hear a faint resemblance to two beloved Black Mountain tracks, “Stormy High” and “Don’t Run Our Hearts Around.”  Her wailing voice is a confident fit to the track’s deep rock foundation in all of its masterful turns and energetic breaks.

Schmidt’s keyboards lend a more lush approach than on past records, rounding out rollicking riffs and more effectively holding together the acoustic intermissions.  Tracks like “Roller Coaster,” with all of its archetypal metaphors and heavy guitar lines, work because of Schmidt’s blues-inflected keys as well as the relationship between Camarind’s chunky bass and Wells’ epic drumming.

With Wilderness Heart, Black Mountain has shaken up its stoner-rock image, but it continues making thunderous rock music.  And whether it’s for the heaviest to lightest of moods, the band produces consistent results.

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