FACE PLANT “We’re not kidding ourselves here,” says Stephen McBean (left). “Led Zeppelin would kick our ass!”
Modern-day musicians get caught in a pinch, don't they? If they dedicate themselves to being cutting edge and different, they get written off as weird and unlistenable. And if they acknowledge that they've so much as heard a song by a prior outfit — well, then, everyone starts picking apart their œuvre for signifiers and ripped-off parts, as if they were nothing but the sum of their influences. As if, you know, the Beatles and the Stones and the Zeps didn't steal shamelessly from those who'd come before them.
If, as they say, talent borrows and genius steals, then Vancouver rock collective Black Mountain do a bit of both. And Stephen McBean, the band's hirsute leader, doesn't really care whether someone thinks his music bears a passing resemblance to the Pink Rolling Zeppelins or whatever. "Hey, man," he tells me jovially over the phone, "we're not kidding ourselves here: Led Zeppelin would kick our ass! They would just blow us off the stage!" That, of course, doesn't stop Black Mountain from trying to up the music of their elders with an increasingly diverse discography that sees them just as likely to whomp out a monstrous riff-o-rama as to floor the uninitiated with a gorgeous folk hymn filled with interweaving vocal countermelodies.
"We're just in love with the freedom of making music," McBean beams, with an unjaded enthusiasm for his craft that belies his nearly two-decade history of musicmaking — first in the mid '90s, with the downer crew Jerk with a Bomb, and then with the Black Mountain Army, which has slowly splintered to become Black Mountain and McBean's more lo-fi side project, Pink Mountaintops.
"And we have lots of different people who come to our shows," he continues. "Sometimes it's dudes who are into the riffs, or people who are into the synths and whatnot, and then there are also people who are drawn to the songs lyrically. And all of that is cool. Because, you know, music reminds you of some time, a place in time. And if you can take someone there, even for just a moment, it's something to be proud of." He pauses, then pulls it all together: "It's kind of, I guess, the goal."
Black Mountain have, of late, been inching closer to that goal in a big way, with three long-players chock full of mature rock songcraft. Whether it's the sprawling prog of the nearly 17-minute "Bright Lights" (from 2008's In the Future), the weirdo kraut grunge of "No Hits" (from their 2005 Black Mountain debut), or the Dio-y truncheon crunch of "Let Spirits Ride" (from last month's Jagjaguwar release, Wilderness Heart), McBean's laconic, clear croon finds a way to merge and intertwine with the honey-tinged roar of Amber Webber. To McBean and the rest of the band, veering across the musical spectrum seems well within the bounds of their classic-rock inspirations, as well as a way to break through their self-imposed stylistic limits.