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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Black Mountain: Black Mountain


1) Modern Music; 2) Don't Run Our Hearts Around; 3) Druganaut; 4) No Satisfaction; 5) Set Us Free; 6) No Hits; 7) Heart Of Snow; 8) Faulty Times.

What is it that makes neo-hippies different from old time hippies? In pure theory, the easiest thing is to say «Every­thing!» and go on a lengthy rant about imminently changing times. But, having listened to Black Mountain now, I suppose one could be prompted to think twice about that. These guys have shrunk down my conscience just as neatly as they happened to expand it.

Black Mountain, formerly called the «Back Mountain Army» (or, rather, the latter was basically Black Mountain the band plus a bunch of friends, relatives, roadies, cats, dogs, and crack whores), hail from Canada, an ideal place for all the neo-hippies to hail from — tasty social benefits and plenty of open space to procrastinate on, if one doesn't mind a little winter cold. Presumably, they are neo-hippies, but better than most: they not only call themselves artists, they also work pretty hard to deserve that title, which is a rarity.

The band's music has gained critical praise (otherwise I wouldn't have known about them), and the band itself has accumulated a moderate fan base, but overall my impression is that «The Peo­ple» have generally been colder towards Black Mountain than «The Judges». This is probably be­cause «The Peo­ple» tend to get irritated when the careful ratio of modern-to-ancient gets signifi­cantly tipped in favour of the latter — and Black Mountain make little, if any, secret about their musical ideals. Let us count off just a few models of adoration: (a) The Jefferson Airplane, (b) Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young... (c) ...& Young again, solo this time; (d) Blue Cheer (I was going to write 'Black Sabbath', but they do not care much for the ultra-heavy Sabbath guitar tone, so Blue Cheer is more like it; (e) The Grateful Dead; (f) The Jefferson Airplane again, because there is just no other way to stress how much these guys want to pass themselves off for a modern day 'Plane. Even their lead singer takes some bad cues from Marty Balin, while their lead singerine takes some good cues from Grace Slick.

The band's message is spelt out pretty transparently in the second song: "Let's find a better place, and quit this whole damn race" — not even the Airplane were that blunt about it. With a theme like that, you'd expect the underlying music to be pretty paranoid, and it is. Worried, nervous, consta­ntly shifting melodies, graced with lyrical themes of disgust ('No Hits', 'No Satisfaction', 'Faulty Times'), escape ('Don't Run Our Hearts Around', 'Set Us Free'), and passing out ('Drug­anaut') — although, to be frank, drugs as such have relatively little space on the album.

If the general feel of things is that simple, the only way Black Mountain could turn into an exci­ting record would be through songwriting — and performance. Well, one thing that can definitely be said in favour of it is that it is undeniably fun, no matter how bleak it sometimes sounds. From the opening comic chord of the saxophone and right down to the final wall-of-sound blast of 'Fau­lty Times', it is totally non-boring to wait for whatever else the band has in store for us. And, sin­ce they take their lessons from so many teachers, you can never tell if the next song is going to be fuzzy and carnivalesque ('Modern Music'), or strewn with mean heavy riffage ('Druganaut'), or be combining a kind of one-note Velvet Undeground drone with a lyrical nod to the Rolling Stones ('No Satisfaction' — which, musically, is sort of what happens when you mix 'Waiting For The Man' with 'Sing This All Together'), or invoke a sanctified Old Testamental spirit ('Set Us Free'). One song, 'No Hits', even goes out of the way to establish a techno rhythm and pierce you with a fully certified electronic arrangement — but even then, in a way, I see them as paying tribute to the likes of the Silver Apples and early Krautrock artists rather than Aphex Twin or Autechre.

On their own, the songs are nothing special. For each of these melodies, a Sixties musicologist will have little trouble establishing an exact list of sources. The playing — technically — is good, but nothing too extraordinary or virtuoso-style. The lead singer (Stephen McBean) has a «little guy» type of nasal whine that will not be for everyone; the second lead singer, Amber Webber, does a much better job at convincing me that the end of the world is near — and yet I still cannot see her beating Grace Slick, whom she quite obviously does set out to try to beat.

But, admittedly, this is a good, not bad example of kowtowing: they understand the spirit of how-it-used-to-be and they are capable of conjuring it. If the Jefferson Airplane were a necessary ingredient of their ge­neration, and if today's generation needs another Jefferson Airplane, en­ri­ched by the experience of the previous Jefferson Airplane, so be it. From my own point of view, Black Mountain do not say anything that I have not already heard — but what they repeat are pleasant sayings, and I do not mind at all to hear them again in a new combination. The heart, un­fortunately, refuses to budge, because a tribute is a tribute, no matter how many different people you are trying to pay tribute to all at once. But the brain has appreciated the complexity and un­predictability of the tribute, and, in the hopes of seeing the band eventually mature into something bigger than the sum of its influences, advances them a thumbs up. As a bonus provocation, try to find for yourself which of the eight songs quotes musically from 'Paint It Black'. (That's the one I spotted. There may be a miriad of others as well).

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