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Music Picks

Why Black Mountain Is Worth Climbing

This prog-rock is high. And good.

By Elaine Corden 31 Jan 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Elaine Corden writes regularly about music for The Tyee.

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'In The Future' is one of BC's best album now.

It's hard to say just a few words about local wondergroup Black Mountain. Authoritative music mags and blogs both local and international have tripped over themselves to wax poetic on the psych-rock quintet, whether it be the fashionableness of their beards or the heaviness of their riffs, trying to determine why such an old-school sound draws such a crowd.

Truly, even dyed-in-the-wool fans of the band, who came to every show way back when they were unknown and called Jerk With a Bomb, now wish that people would just shut up about Black Mountain.

Here's the thing: it's hard to keep quiet when the group keeps getting better. Their last hometown appearance, at Richard's on Richards in November 2007, was easily one of the best shows Vancouver witnessed that year, and if post-show consensus is to be believed, one of the best hometown gigs Black Mountain has ever played.

But a warning: if their new album cover (for In the Future, which was finally released on Jan. 22 of this year) doesn't give it away, you should know before hitting play that this is a prog-rock record. From the heady, fuzzy opening notes, this is a thick sludge of an album, poorly suited to anyone who likes their music to neatly adhere to a verse-chorus-verse structure. That warning aside, In The Future is a winner, and gets even better with repeated listens.

The opening track, "Stormy High," is a big-footed stoner-jam, that announces with much ceremony that the band has gotten heavier since its self-titled debut in 2005. In some ways, it's the same Black Mountain that fans fell in love with, but souped-up and more believable. Vocalist/guitarist/bandleader Stephen McBean's shamanistic and sometimes completely clichéd lyrics are still present, but now the delivery somehow makes them more believable.

Sure, McBean's hippie ideologies often sound as if they've been boiled in bong water, but now the group makes music that's both spacey and challenging enough as to justify them. To wit: in previous incarnations, Black Mountain could sound like a bunch of stoners talking about how awesome it was to be stoned -- and if you weren't under the influence yourself, the conceit quickly wore thin. Now, the group is making music that's so lysergic as to induce a contact high, which makes those druggy lyrics eminently more relatable.

The album offers more than just stonerphenelia, however. For every crunchy, guitar-driven track like "Stormy High," there's an equally compelling come-down tune, like the gorgeous, Neil Young-aping "Stay Free." It's a fine balance, but the group has made an accessible record that translates outside of black-lit subculture.

What stays with the listener and sets Black Mountain apart from a million other bands trading in psychedelia is, of course, vocalist Amber Webber. Though the chanteuse's mournful, folky voice has the power to induce chills, it's not forced or overindulged. Even on tracks when Webber takes the lead vocal, such as the eerie "Queens Will Play," she's so unimposing that you almost forget what a unique, stunning set of pipes she has. Add to that mix a larger presence from Jeremy Schmidt, whose amazing contributions on keys have previously been a subtlety heard only with repeated listens, and you have a band in possession of that most unique of traits: a talent for talent.

There's not a bad song on the record, but the album's highlight, and this week's Music Pick, could not be anything but "Tyrants," an eight-minute epic that traverses the terrain of galloping swamp rock, keyboard-driven prog, pastoral folk and classic protest-song effortlessly. It even has what sounds suspiciously like keytar and still doesn't sound ridiculous. It's clearly the showpiece of In The Future, and speaks to the band's mastery of a multitude of genres.

Notwithstanding all the above, Black Mountain's In The Future can be reduced to one sentence: pretty sweet, dude.

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