Daze of Future Past
Black Mountain Near the Summit of Their Powers
Like hundreds of bands worldwide, Black Mountain make earthy rock and roll that flies semifreaky flags for the psychedelic, hard-rock, and folk stylings that flourished during the Nixon years. Unlike hundreds of bands worldwide of that ilk, Black Mountain were tapped by Coldplay to open for them on a tour in 2005, shortly after the Canadian band's self-titled debut came out.
"Playing was weird, a bit of an ordeal," says bassist Matt Camirand about the stint with Chris Martin and company, "when you're playing to people who don't go out more than three or four times a year because they're young professionals with children. And then you're trying to compete with a stage setup where there's flashing lights and giant yellow balls falling from the ceiling and a Jumbotron. I wouldn't say it was the most exciting live situation we've ever done, but I'm definitely glad we did it, and the people who invited us to do it were great."
But the brush with 25,000-plus crowds and hobnobbing with the industry's highest earners didn't cause the Vancouver-based quintet to swerve off their grind. All five members still vent their creativity in at least one other music project besides Black Mountain. Lead singer/guitarist Stephen McBean fronts the slightly more eccentric and sex-obsessed Pink Mountaintops, in which most of Black Mountain also play; Camirand and Black Mountain drummer Josh Wells toil in the more country-rockish, Cormac McCarthy–obsessed Blood Meridian; singer Amber Webber and Wells link up for the dark, acoustic Lightning Dust; keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt spelunks in Sinoia Caves.
All of these diversions offer valuable creative outlets, but, Camirand admits with a laugh, "Black Mountain is the only one that's paying anybody's bills at this point. It's not so much what's more valuable to everyone, but it's almost necessary that the other ones exist to ensure that Black Mountain continues. It makes sure that we know when to say when and take a mental-health break from the band and from each other."
Black Mountain's first album introduced a group adept at tight, memorable song- writing, epic space-truckin' excursions, and tear-jerking balladry. McBean and Webber's voices complement each other: The former radiates a rapscallion mischievousness, the latter a steadfast, throaty goodness. The group's excellent sense of dynamics allows them to write long songs without testing the listener's patience—even on the nearly 17-minute "Bright Lights." The music is not fantastically complex, but it is emotionally compelling and played with utmost conviction by people who surely have killer record collections. They're not the wildest bunch ever to plug in; anyone into Neil Young's Zuma or the Doors' longest songs can easily appreciate what these canny Canucks are doing.
For a band that records for indie-rock stronghold Jagjaguwar, though, Black Mountain sure do attract an atypical indie-rock audience. "Inevitably [at a Black Mountain show], the first two rows are people over the age of 40—and then all the youngsters have to stand behind them," Camirand says. "In Europe, it's always like that—especially in Germany. Which is cool, because it's nice to know that you're not pigeonholed—that the older you get, your audience isn't going to stay teenagers or twentysomethings, like Green Day or something."
That being said, Black Mountain's latest full-length, 2008's In the Future, won't disappoint that dedicated following. The Dave Sardy–produced disc is slightly more polished and progressive-rock oriented than its predecessor, but its thrills are still visceral and cerebral. Take "Evil Ways," which sounds like Deep Purple rewriting Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life," as Black Mountain concoct a heady blend of baroque keyboard flourishes and brawny power chords.
As for the group's development, Camirand observes, "It's been a weird growth, because with the first record, Steve and Josh had written a bunch of songs together, and they wanted to make an album, and they asked me to play bass on it. They put their headphones on and made it up as they went along. That turned into a band, and then Jeremy was asked to put some keyboards on. Everybody joined after the fact.
"On In the Future, it was a lot of jamming together, coming up with ideas," he continues. "We only just started writing the third record last week. It's already starting to be a major group effort. We had such a good year with [In the Future] and touring that I think everyone's super psyched on getting right down on the third one."