"...this grand musical quest is often fruitless, and leaves this listener wondering what might have been, had the group demanded less of themselves."
Canadian prog-folkers Black Mountain can be added to the ever-expanding list of groups who are undone by their foolishly overreaching musical ambition, and persistent inability to play to their strengths. The Vancouver band excel when they devote their energies to melody and traditional structure, but they aspire to something more. Unfortunately, this grand musical quest is often fruitless, and leaves this listener wondering what might have been, had the group demanded less of themselves.
To explain further: the band have a fondness for booming, epic psych-folk-rock numbers, which move through a number of jarring sonic shifts, to no great end. Doubtless they see the two longest songs on this sophomore record as its twin focal points, but in reality, they represent joint contenders for “duff track” status.
‘Tyrants’, for instance, moves pointlessly through a range of sonic segments, which never quite gel into a satisfying whole. A frantic, pounding intro breaks down into a light, melancholic swirl of mellotron and gentle guitar, before a rather graceless shift into a sludgy, gothic stadium-rock territory.
Penultimate track ‘Bright Lights’ is similarly daft; the title refrain is repeated ad nauseam with embarrassing earnestness, while the song morphs from craggy folk-rock ballad to metal riff-fest, before an irritatingly protracted wave of shapeless, symphonic noise.
Black Mountain are a much better band when they resist the temptation to switch sonic tack. ‘Stay Free’, for instance, is a straightforward, gorgeous country-rock ballad, with a strong nod towards Neil Young; I was going to commend the instantly-familiar quality of its melody, before I realised that it was only “instantly familiar” because I had heard it before, on the Spiderman 3 soundtrack. Good tune, regardless.
This knack for simplicity is perfected on closing ballad ‘Night Walks’, which is built upon little more than a sweet organ hum, and some ghostly female vocals. The remainder of the record is pitched somewhere between the two sonic extremes: moments of pleasing melodic songcraft give way to more ponderous, overwrought musical passages. Let us hope that the “less is more” ethos sinks in, in time for album number three.