[7 August 2005]
Nothing significant can result from cowering to discretion and playing it safe. If musicians are not prepared to forget trends and expectations, then why bother? Whether it works or not, overstatement is vastly more interesting to listen to than whimpering mediocrity. Lately, even independent artists seem inclined to travel down paths more travelled. Every band sounds like some other band and that band really aped the sound of some band 20 years dead. This pussyfooting is getting more and more familiar, and it’s boring. Inevitably, the past will fuel what’s to come, but too often all the rehashing comes off as insincere. It’s too damn easy to hide behind your influences. Shit, I don’t care if a band directly lifts Joy Division basslines or the Clash guitar parts note for note. Really though, there’s has to be a point where so-called artists place their own ideas and personalities before their record collections. When there’s urgency and purpose behind the work, then that will inevitably outshine any insufficiencies. That’s the kind of transcendental drive that fuels Baltimore’s Wilderness and their debut album. Sure, their exultant agit-rock can get silly ostentatious, but at least there’s something to it, something severe. From the album art right down to the last song Wilderness is unabashedly extremist.
Wilderness enters the fray with a daunting work that requires you to leap. You’ll probably have to suspend beliefs and shelve your cynicism. This 10-song debut demands you shut out everything else and pay attention. It’s an album that defies the listening context in which you experience it. Its character is so confident that it doesn’t matter if you listen to it during day, night, work or play. I’ve listened to it in the car, at work, going to bed, waking up, in the kitchen, outdoors, and it’s always the same trip. Wilderness is such an audacious work that it is probably better suited for mountaintops and skyscrapers. One thing is for sure; this band is not interested in making background music. Their songs are sublime and obnoxious and sure to inspire revulsion as much as admiration. Wilderness definitely stands in its own enormous class, and whether you attend to it or not, there will be no fencing. The universal “I don’t like the singer” rationalization for not liking a band is sure to echo profusely as far as Wilderness is concerned. But as the maniac vocals and enveloping psychedelics suggest, this band doesn’t seem interested in attracting casual fans.
Above and beyond the sprawling guitars and swelling drums, Wilderness really owes their bombast to their vocalist. Taking cues from the long line of bizarro crooners, Jim Morrison, Ian Curtis, and David Byrne; James Johnson takes the pulpit and unloads. His style falls somewhere between a dictatorial cultural theorist and a rocket propelled grenade launcher. He shouts his way through smartly entertaining lyrics that encroach on usually esoteric territory. Hyperreality never seemed such an amusing place to live. With miraculously agile aplomb, Johnson stutters through lines like “o computer computer in your money moment as what there is to see… glowing in the secret o modernity ity….” Now depending on the listener’s particular expectations of rock music, this kind of intellectual sermonizing might be too pompous to bear. But therein lies the charm of the Wilderness vocal template. It’s so flamboyant that it retains enough humour to be tolerated. Singing along to the ravings about foreign lands and media inundation, there’s no option but to share a smile with Johnson and company.
Along with the hurtling vocals, Wilderness’ musical tempers are characterized by excess. The guitars on this album are bright and brilliant, somewhere between Mogwai and bliss. As well, the rolling drums add to the resplendent atmosphere created on Wilderness elevating their sound above somewhat likeminded bands that tend to tread more menacingly. But again, what really separates Wilderness from the theatre rock crowd is their vocal aesthetic. This notion is reaffirmed by the two instrumental tracks included on the album, which both come off as stunted in relation to the other more rousing tracks.
“We are the wilderness band and we’re here to say….” These guys obviously aren’t much for subtlety and their one trick can grow tiresome, but when it hits, it’s damn captivating. Wilderness‘s strength and weakness, then, is its hammering confidence. The band has created such soaring results, that it rarely breaks from that formula. It is a relatively leaden album next to its fairly swift running time. Considering the fact that it’s the band’s debut, then that can be forgiven and understood. There’s no doubt that the guys from Wilderness are seriously in love with their band right now and, for the most part, that translates to an invigorating album. Songs like “It’s All The Same” and “Post Plethoric Rhetoric” are not just huge, but hugely inspiring. And since overwhelming can play to both positive and negative effect, this album is likely to both frustrate and elevate. Either way, Wilderness thankfully plays to extremes, exploiting music’s never boring virtue—radicalism.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/wilderness-st2005/