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Black Mountain - Black Mountain

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Artist: Black Mountain

Album: Black Mountain

Label: Jagjaguwar

Review date: Jan. 18, 2005

Black Mountain’s self-titled debut finds singer/songwriter Stephen McBean, the man behind Pink Mountaintops and Jerk With A Bomb, exploring the rather familiar territory of late ’60s/early ’70s rock. The usual influences – Led Zeppelin, Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath – are all in evidence, along with an surprisingly heavy dose of ’60s soul. This music may be the sort that usually gets labeled as “primitive,” but McBean & Co.’s take on it is far from it: while preserving the rough-around-the-edges feel and electric energy of their influences, Black Mountain’s precise arrangements and careful execution seem scientifically calculated to produce the maximum effect. Like many of their retro-rock peers, however, the band struggles to find a personal identity that transcends imitation and homage; the result is an album that, while excellent at moments, often falls victim to its own stylistic incertitude.

Black Mountain’s first half contains its best tracks, highlighted by “Modern Music,” a sax-fueled groove featuring call-and-response vocals from McBean and singer Amber Webber. Similar vocal arrangements are used to great effect throughout, emphasizing the communal, almost gospel-tinged spirit of the album. Other tracks explore more typically psychedelic territory, deploying exemplary proto-metal riffage (“Don’t Run Our Hearts Around,” “Druganaut”) with a campfire sincerity that keep them from being mere exercises in nostalgia.

The remainder of the album, unfortunately, is nowhere near as consistent. The throbbing dance beat of “No Hits” comes straight out of left field, and makes no sense within the context of the album. Another stylistic detour, the sprawling “Heart of Snow,” aims for epic grandeur but lacks any coherence or direction. Both of these tracks, as well the other seven-minute plus pieces that round out the album, attest to the band’s desire to create something more adventurous than mere rock revivalism, but don’t have the necessary ideas or substance to fulfill their own ambition. These missteps wouldn’t be as damning if they didn’t last so long, but at their present length they throw the album into a severe state of imbalance: perhaps in an effort to lure the listener in, Black Mountain frontload the album with the shorter, punchier tracks and save the meandering eight-minute flights of indulgence for last. Perhaps this consciously bifurcated structure is an effort to recall the days of vinyl when the medium itself provided an excellent reason to divide an album into two opposing parts. Whatever the reason, Black Mountain’s second “side” probably won’t get nearly as much play as its first.

Black Mountain makes for a disappointing and frustrating listening experience, dashing the hopes raised by its stronger moments. Black Mountain largely avoid the dangers of being too slavishly imitative by throwing together disparate elements: at their best they smoothly juxtapose the power chords of Black Sabbath with the clockwork grooves of Booker T and the MGs, making for a perfect marriage of hard rock and soul. When they forsake the groove in favor of somber epics and dirges, however, energy and movement give way to inertia, and the album grinds to a halt.

By Michael Cramer

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