[14 December 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
On their first, self-titled album, Baltimore’s Wilderness had 10 tracks. Their second, Vessel States, contained only nine. And their new record, (K)no(w)here, features a spartan eight. This movement is not merely a numbers game. It is a trend worth taking a look at, to see where the band has been moving to. The elements of their music haven’t changed much. They came out with a sound very much their own and, over the course of four years, have stuck pretty close to that sound.
But it’s what they’re doing with that sound that is changing, if subtly. The echoing expanse of Wilderness still felt compact, like its swelling sound was pressing against walls. Vessel States stretched out a little more, got bigger, showed a few more holes. But on (K)no(w)here, the band has finally made the big album they’ve been building towards.
Originally conceived as a musical companion to an installation by visual artist Charles Long, (K)no(w)here is a more or less continuous piece of music. It is separated on the disc into eight parts, but they are movements more than songs. And, more than the band’s other discs, the parts work well together. The size of the album finally matches the size of its towering parts.
“High Nero”, the album opener, takes its time building. The nearly inaudible hum and drone that starts off the track lasts nearly two minutes before Colin McCann’s reverberating guitar offers its gently bending notes. But this song, like most of the album, doesn’t come to fruition until the rhythm section comes in. The tom work on the drums, and the light cymbals, doesn’t thunder so much as it growls and, along with the low rumble of the bass, keeps the song from leveling out. It is always building until it runs into the next track.
The next movement, “Strand the Test of Time”, is most noticeable as a contained song. It has the wide sound of Vessel State, and lets Jason Johnson’s terse bark holler into the empty spaces of the track. Later, in tracks like “(P)Ablum”, Johnson’s voice gets it first chance to bounce off another sound. McCann, for the first time on a Wilderness record, sings backing vocals, and his high keen is a nice counterpart to Johnson’s professorial wail. McCann offers a ghostly sound to fill the space between Johnson and the rhythm section.
In fact, through much of the album, McCann’s usually overwhelming guitar sound takes a backseat to the drums and vocals. It is an effective shift in emphasis for the band, as they let the true driving force behind these songs, the steady and sharp drumming, take the helm. What McCann does so effectively on these songs is haunt them with his guitar. He still sounds big, but he swirls around these movements instead of filling them in. He also acts as the sinew between the parts of (K)no(w)here, subtly transitioning from, say, the hard notes of “Own Anything” to the trilling pull-offs of “Chinese Whisperers”. And he also knows when to step out of the way, as he does for the chillingly bare end of the record, when the drums which carried the album so brilliantly along make the final, fleeting noises of an arresting piece of music.
This album is the sound of a band at the top of its game, knowing its strengths and mixing them to execute a sound as best as they can. Wilderness has never sounded like anyone else, but on (K)no(w)here they sound more confidently like themselves than we’ve heard them before. There may be fewer parts to their albums as they go along, but with each step the parts get bigger and start to mesh with each other to make something greater. “Cover your head,” Johnson and McCann howl and bay at each other as the album ends, and you best heed their warning. This is a commanding sound, a towering sound, and it will fall down on you from a great height. Be ready.