For the last decade, lovers of hard rock and metal faced an interesting conundrum. Musically, the bands that emerged throughout that decade were phenomenally accomplished, building on 50 years of musical evolution in rock and metal. However, the vocals of many of these bands were a major obstacle to overcome for listeners. Just imagine hearing a three-minute symphony, then hearing the stereotypical Cookie Monster or dentist drill vocal delivery barge in like a drunken tailgater.
That’s what made Black Mountain’s emergence on the hard rock scene such a refreshing alternative. Stephen McBean’s vocals may not be as distinguishable as other rock vocalists, but they are hardly off-putting. And Amber Webber’s weary, measured vocals provide a great contrast. Their 2008 breakthrough album, In The Future, was a sprawling monster of an album, complete with chugging riffs and heady eight-minute-plus epics.
The fans that gravitated toward the more ambitious elements of Black Mountain will likely be confounded with Wilderness Heart. The rumbling Led Zeppelin/Deep Purple-like guitar riffs are still present, but in a far folksier frame. The longest song on Wilderness Heart clocks in at a little over five minutes. As this is the band’s third full-length album, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to another famous third album: Led Zeppelin III. If only the songs held up.
The opening track, the unfortunately-titled The Hair Song is appealing enough with a swaying chorus and some great vocal interplay with Webber and McBean. But the guitar riffs don’t do enough to differentiate the song from any other band out there that owes a serious debt to the ‘70s. Things get better with “Old Fangs”, thanks to Josh Well’s percussion and Jeremy Schmidt’s laser show-ready keyboard work. The slower pacing of “Old Fangs”, and songs like “Buried By the Blues” and the title track show the band being able to twist the sounds of their influences into something wholly original.
If only the band took those risks throughout Wilderness Heart. “Roller Coaster” uses one of the most worn-out metaphors in rock and crafts a song that endurance-wise, feels like the 15-minute “Bright Lights” from In The Future despite its five-minute length. The heaviest track on Wilderness Heart sounds like filler music from Tenacious D’s last movie.
Wilderness Heart will most likely separate Black Mountain fans as fans of the band’s heavier sound will gravitate toward In the Future and fans of their more folksy/retro sound may lean toward Wilderness Heart. If only the album lived up to the awesomeness of its album cover. The band’s willingness to shake up their own sound so early in their development is admirable, but the its decision to move the sound to a more generic direction is a major drag.