In the Future is an expansive statement of an album, full of big guitars and cold space, a variety of sounds and a hard-earned and ever-present brilliance.
The cover to Black Mountain's new record, In the Future, is deceptively retro. With the title in mind, the cover looks like some vision of the future dreamed up in the '70s. As if the Rubik's cube shape could be some traveling vessel, or a square planet. It is a cover that immediately aligns the band with a lot of the '70s psych-rock bands -- here Pink Floyd in particular -- they so often call to mind.
However, anyone who heard the band's eponymous first record knows they are not interested in rehashing the past or resting on ironic artifacts of a time long past. With that in mind, what becomes more interesting about the artwork is the change in color from the front of the disc to the back. The front is warm -- all yellow and orange sunset hues -- while the back is a collection of cold, blue and green cubes. That movement in temperature is indicative of the album's sound. In the Future moves often, and in grand fashion, from warm, crunchy, big sounds, to expansive coldness. It is an album that manages to sound bigger than its larger-than-life predecessor, and also expands on the band's already large sonic palate.
Black Mountain was an album that thrived on guitar riffs. Songs like "Druganaut" and "Don't Run Our Hearts Around" were amped up with huge, chugging guitar riffs that made the most navel-gazing indie kid bang his head. It was those moments that made the album so good, and so accessible. The quieter moments on that record, however, often came off as a little slack. They had trouble keeping up the tension when they turned down the volume.
Not so with In the Future. This album is more consistent than the first album because it succeeds not only with the hard-rock shuffle of "Stormy High", but also with the acoustic-driven, high-register of "Stay Free". The band's not-so-secret weapon, vocalist Amber Webber, delivers the goods here, belting it out when the eight-minute-plus "Tyrants" lets the bottom drop out. She stays in the background for a while, backing up Stephen McBean's vocals, but also gradually taking over. On top of McBean's typically giant guitar work, Webber holds up her end of the bargain, throwing the quiet churn of the song on her back and singing the band out of the eye of the storm, and back into the swell and squall of the track.
In fact, "Tyrants" could be a perfect microcosm of the album. It shows their already-established guitar attack, the eardrum puncturing rhythm section, their new ability to use the space in their quieter moments to keep the movement of the song going. And coupled with other songs like the Bowie-space-pop of "Wild Wind", or the slow burn of keyboards on "Wucan", the band clearly establishes a new, much more varied sound than on their first record.
But, in the end, "Tyrants" can't be this album's biggest statement. Mostly because its eight minutes end up sounding like a radio edit when you get to "Bright Lights". This song, a nearly 17-minute opus, is the biggest risk -- by far -- on an album full of risks. It is a song that fully indulges the band's noodling, jammy side, and the results are fantastic. From the slow, careful build, where McBean and Webber exchange vocals, repeating "Bright light, light bright" over and over again, as the band assembles itself behind their cadence. They slip into a trench of spacey balladry from there, until that repeating title line comes back in and they build to the biggest guitar riff on In the Future. And just when it seems the song has reached where it needs to go -- to loud, breakneck rock music -- the song doesn't just bottom out, it falls into an abyss. From here, In the Future's other major strength -- the keyboard work -- takes over. The ambient, underwater sounds could be where the song loses its way -- and on Black Mountain maybe they would have -- but here and there the noise swells, making you lean forward in anticipation, ready for the band to kick back in. They don't, not right away. But when they do, it is giant and euphoric and as loud and heavy and fun as rock music gets.
The songs eventually fades into the final track, "Night Walks", which is almost entirely made up of Webber's vocals. It's a quiet, ghostly end to a raucous album, but the ending works. It completes the album's movement. More than most albums, In the Future seems to be aware it is traveling over time. So the album's title does not suggest the album's destination, so much as its trajectory. The listener feels, after all the highs and lows, the drawn-out quiet and crowded noise, that they've gone from one place to another. Been moved by this music. It's an amazing achievement for a band who had already done so much with their first record. To warm us up, then chill the sweat on our arms. To drag us through the darkness only to squint, unbelieving, at the light. To start where we are and end up In the Future, still unsure of what this future is, but ecstatic and exhausted by the journey to get here.