The Real Deal
Ask most people about Mountain and the reply will usually be “‘Mississippi Queen’, right?” While accurate, the response is wholly incomplete as Mountain merits recognition for far more than one song. Unfortunately, history has all but forgotten about Mountain’s appearance at Woodstock and the fine music the group generated in its brief career. The fact remains that guitarist Leslie West, bassist Felix Pappalardi, and drummer Corky Laing were a potent musical force in the early ‘70s, one that furthered the driving rock sound employed by Cream, and later Ted Nugent and Nazareth.
If Mountain can be described by only one word, it would be heavy. From West’s brutal guitar work to Pappalardi and Laing’s pounding rhythm section, there was nothing delicate about the band’s approach. Their songs had the subtlety of a street fight, yet incorporated remarkably high levels of musicianship and tonal quality. While “Mississippi Queen” is Mountain’s most notable hit, it remains but one song from a pool of excellent material. Fortunately, the remastered release of The Best of Mountain (with bonus tracks) highlights some of the band’s finest work, thus giving credit where it is long overdue.
Each one of the album’s 16 tracks adds to defining Mountain’s legacy. The songs “Never in My Life”, “For Yasgur’s Farm”, and “Don’t Look Around” showcase West’s underrated guitar skills, as they personify quintessential ‘70s hard rock riffing. Additionally, “Boys in the Band” and “Dreams of Milk and Honey” allow West to display his penchant for blues drenched heaviness as both tracks bear uncanny likenesses to vintage Cream; (not unexpected as Pappalardi had served as Cream’s producer in his pre-Mountain days).
Although often regarded as a power trio, Mountain did incorporate superb keyboard work into its songs. “King’s Chorale” and the six minute opus “Nantucket Sleighride (To Owen Coffin)” are such examples as each is anchored by a soaring organ, affording West the opportunity to explore the outer limits of his guitar’s potential as Pappalardi and Laing dutifully follow. The potent keyboard is also present in “Long Red” (from West’s 1969 solo album Mountain) as it is underscored by a precision military drum march, giving this album a genuine period piece from over thirty years ago.
A cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll over Beethoven”, and the tracks “The Animal Trainer and the Toad” and “Travelin’ in the Dark (To E.M.P.)” evidence Mountain’s ability to plug in and play without any pretension whatsoever. Similarly, the song “Crossroader” maintains a distinct spontaneity to its sound, as well as a howling rock bluesiness reminiscent of prime Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The inclusion of “Mississippi Queen” is a given; the remastered version polishes the trademark cowbell and features West’s guitar at its down and dirty best. Improved clarity gives the track increased nastiness, making it even more noteworthy as Mountain’s signature calling card. As memorable as this song is, it is surprisingly outshined by two lesser-known compositions. “Silver Paper” from 1970’s Mountain Climbing! is nothing short of musical perfection: Powerful vocals, solid rhythms, vibrant keyboarding, all wringed by West’s razor sharp fretwork. It is without question this collection’s second most beautiful song.
The highlight of The Best of Mountain comes by way of the Jack Bruce penned “Theme for an Imaginary Western”. The artistry of this song elevates it to a different level, one that transcends mere rock music. It is one of those rare gems (similar to Hendrix’ “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)”) that can only be described as majestic and needs to be repeatedly played to appreciate the full extent of its grandeur. If nothing else, the track proves Mountain’s momentary brilliance as a creative entity.
For musical aficionados and historians alike, The Best of Mountain provides an important compliment to their respective collections. Overlooked and under appreciated by much of the musical mainstream, Mountain remains one of the ‘70s pioneers in heavy rock and roll. While never mentioned in the same context as Zeppelin, et al., the group’s brief career and limited output should not diminish any of its accomplishments. Mountain endures three decades after its demise simply because it was, and continues to be that good.