Black Mountain's Fuckup Opus
Always nice to see a completely literal convergence of band name and photo-shoot location
Black Mountain opened for Coldplay. I'm still having trouble with that one a couple of years later. And it's not because Coldplay are the Starbucks-pop enemy of drugged-out psyche-rock or because the two bands make music that exists entirely separate universes. It's not, and they don't. At their best, both bands make striving-for-transcendence big-rock gibberish. They may use different ideas to reach those similar ends, but there's not that much setting the majestically gorgeous climax of "Heart of Snow" apart from the majestically gorgeous gorgeous climax of "Clocks." Or, rather, there's nothing ideological setting them apart. Chris Martin and Amber Webber both wail classic-rock pseudo-gospel silliness like it's the only way they know they'll ever find happiness, and Black Mountain pull ideas from Sabbath and Zeppelin the same way Coldplay pull ideas from U2. It's not like Black Mountain make music to small to work in an arena; I can name very few bands who can even rival Black Mountain's titanic riffage. And in practical terms, it's not like Black Mountain opening for Coldplay even meant much of anything. When I saw Coldplay a while back, openers Rilo Kiley played to a mostly-empty Madison Square Garden, and what little audience was there was more preoccupied with finding their seats than with paying attention to whatever might've been happening onstage; Coldplay didn't make their grand entrance until more than an hour after Rilo Kiley got done. The reason I'm having trouble with it is that Black Mountain are fuckups. The one time I saw them, they kept inviting the drunken-Canadian contingent in the audience onstage to play tambourines. They also apologized for missing their previously scheduled NY show, a fairly high-profile Hold Steady opening gig, because they'd just totally forgotten about it. When you're taking part in a meticulously choreographed bazillion-dollar traveling light-show, which is what a Coldplay tour is, there's no room for any fucking up, and you can't just forget about shows. And yet apparently Black Mountain made it through that tour without completely fucking it up. I'm mystified.
It's always interesting when a band gets too big. Black Mountain isn't even particularly indie-big, but they're still too big. And I don't mean that they don't deserve whatever success they've earned; they're a great band. I mean that they're a band who have always and will probably exude an air of permanent irresponsibility, and when bands get big they're supposed to stop fucking up all the time. (Or rather, when they get moderately big they're supposed to stop fucking up. Huge stars are allowed to fuck up, but Black Mountain are not huge stars.) Indie-rock is very much a careerist game, and it's hard to negotiate with the Levi's advertising department when you're droolingly drunk. Part of what I loved about the band's 2005 self-titled debut was the way it seemed to come from nowhere, a towering blooz-drone epic built from whatever scraps of drug-rock they'd managed to pick up over the years. The obvious touchpoint was Sabbath, but Black Mountain weren't a metal band at all; their churn slow and gentle and dazed enough that even its biggest surge-stomp riffs were more about tidal drift than head-crush brutality. There were bits of "We're Desperate"-era X in Webber's screamy gutter-gospel vocal interplay with Steve McBean, and Spacemen 3 heroin-sprawl fuzz also made a few appearances. And the fusion of all that stuff was so loose and confident that like these people were cranking this stuff out on instinct alone, which made them stand alone in an indie-rock universe where everyone keeps half an eye on their bloglines. In true fuckup form, the members of the band have spent the past few years keeping busy with not-as-good side-projects before coming back with their new In the Future. When In the Future first crossed my desk last month, it sounded at first like this band had finally run itself off the rails. The riffs didn't connect right, the quiet moments bored, and a 17-minute epic called "Bright Lights" threatened to drag the whole thing down into pretentious wankery with it. All of a sudden, this band had expectations weighing on it, and expectations are not a fuckup's best friend.
But here's what I didn't realize at first: In the Future is not an album that you can listen to on earbuds while you're staring at a computer. That's how I listen to music most of the time these days. Way back when that first album came out, that wasn't the case, so maybe that's why it took me a few weeks to catch up. In his Voice review of In the Future, Andrew Gaerig points out that Black Mountain "have abandoned writing songs in favor of constructing moments," but from where I'm sitting that's what the band has always done. Song-structure has never been a particularly important part of what they do. Instead, it's about the instantaneous rush of the operatic gospel yowl or the locked-in head-nod riff. That's a lot easier to process when you're doing something other than staring at a computer waiting to be amazed. In the Future is an album built for half-listening. I finally got the album when I was wandering half-lost around Williamsburg one freezing night. In that context, "Bright Lights" didn't feel like the pretentious seventeen-minute epic it probably was; it felt like a succession of big rock moments, no more or less united than the big rock moments on the rest of the record. In the Future is a record full of amazing tactile sounds: the unbearable lonely moaned vocals of "Night Walks" and the ominous synth-doodles of "Queens Will Play," the elegiac acid-folk strums and cracked-falsetto warbles of "Stay Free." If these fuckups are capable of throwing together ideas like that, maybe it's not fair to expect them to remember what they were doing thirty seconds ago.