Reverence without pity

Black Mountain spin the past into vital modern rock
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  February 20, 2008
INSIDE_indie_blackmountain_
SMOOTH FLOW: Black Mountain.

Black Mountain with Bon Iver | 9:30 pm February 25 | at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St, Portland | 207.828.5600
Unless you actually think Ozzy Osbourne still has some fire in his belly, you can’t help but argue that Monday’s set from Black Mountain at SPACE Gallery will be the most exciting rock show to come to Portland in some time. The Vancouver five-piece occupy a niche that genre diehards ache for: ’60s-’70s rock revivalism anchored by massive guitar riffs, stoner-rock keyboard haze, and juggernaut drumming.

Black Mountain are intense and (thank god) unironic to the point that the main criticism levied against the band is that they’re a carbon copy of a) Black Sabbath, b) Led Zeppelin, or c) Pink Floyd. That each criticism can be fairly argued — at their best, the group transition between prog, balladry, and anthems without a fuss — is a compliment to the band’s aesthetic: they don’t care whom they’re aping as long as you get your rocks off.

Their two albums — 2005’s self-titled debut and the new In the Future (both on Jagjaguwar) — take different paths up the same monolith. The former begins with a self-conscious statement of purpose, “Modern Music” (“One two three, another pop explosion/One two three, another hit recording”), a rollicking shamble that bounces between R&B and traditional indie reference points before a bombastic rock coda.

The track blows through early Rolling Stones flair — wheezy horns, up-tempo guitar, call-and-response vocals — then climaxes in a gospel refrain, then turns on a dime into 15 seconds of hard rock. It’s a suiting introduction, as all those influences are liberally peppered throughout the album, particularly the rock riffs: the moody “Stay Free” is a phantasmagoria of memorable progressions. Throughout, Amber Webber’s playfully assertive singing gives the band a soul and finesse they’d otherwise lack; it’s hard to imagine the band as more than a reverent boys club without her charismatic vocals.

In the Future, on the other hand, is an unabashed — and surprisingly coherent — stoner opus. Black Mountain adhere to the whims of the genre here, with eight- and sixteen-plus minute monsters juxtaposed with obligatory shorter tracks of cheeky, blissed-out sensitivity (“Stay Free”’s sleepy acoustic guitar and tambourine, lyrics like “Beautiful ponies/So beautiful/They’ll kill us all”).

The lengthy tracks are daunting in name only; while they contain the album’s largest crescendos and longest dirges, one of In the Future’s best qualities is its flow. “Stay Free” picks up just slightly at its end, adding weighty percussion and a cello, which amps up the melodrama before “Queens Will Play,” a sly gothic ball that highlights the mistress-of-the-night schtick Webber milks throughout the album. In the Future is rock-opera smooth; every song is so packed with original mini-suites that it’s irrelevant where one song ends and another begins.

The album’s stubborn adherence to genre tropes, however variegated, is a relative letdown after the winningly slapdash approach of Black Mountain’s debut — why bother with focus when you’ve got so many aces up your sleeve? — but it travels beautifully through an open room. It envelops you in a dreamy haze, swallows you and spits you out amidst a ball of flames. But even if In the Future leaves you wanting more, what Black Mountain give you — awesome spatial command, a noteworthy lack of redundancy, an onslaught of inventive riffs, and a no-frills ethos — can’t really be beat.

Christopher Gray can be reached at cgray@phx.com.

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