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Does anyone still believe in the future—not the day after tomorrow, obviously, but deep into the future, when jet packs are as common as iPods and hot and cold wars are things of the past? Black Mountain does—or so it would seem. The hard rock outfit’s second and latest full-length is titled In the Future, and its cover art, depicting a cutaway view of a mysterious subterranean structure, suggests a world that has yet to be discovered. The music, at times, conveys a similar vibe. Throughout the disc, the Vancouver quintet uses machinelike rhythms and electronic instrumentation to hint at rock music’s limitless potential. If there was ever a band that deserved the tag “futuristic rock,” it must be this one, right?
Well, not quite. Dig deep into the new album and you’ll find that Black Mountain’s idea of the future isn’t all that unfamiliar. Many of the songs are dystopian portraits that reflect 2008 sensibilities, but much of the album is built on ideas of the future that haven’t had much traction since the Nixon administration. The alt-country tune “Queens Will Play” belongs to the former category. “We’ve all seen tomorrow,” Amber Webber sings over the song’s heartbeat pulse. The lyric is preceded by what could be a scene from Law & Order (“Blood sprawls across the walls”) and is followed by a portentous conclusion (“Demons may be hiding in our shadows”). It’s a vision that is both ripped from the headlines, as they say on TV, and more depressing than what our parents and our grandparents saw on the horizon.
Violence begets violence on “Tyrants,” another distressing portrait of the here and now. “You may raise your rifle to the sun,” Webber and guitarist Stephen McBean sing in unison, “but you have not won/No, you have not won.” Coming from a band that declared on its 2005 self-titled debut full-length that “our hopes will not die”—and coming from a band that was co-founded by four inner-city social workers—the lyric seems like a bit of defiant rhetoric.By the end of the song, however, it’s clear that the line is really a straight-up threat. “As soldiers empty their rounds into your side/Tyrant, you know, your time has come.” What’s most unsettling about this “Stairway to Heaven”-style epic is not just its embrace of Old Testament violence but its abandonment of the idea of progress. Of course hopes die—anybody who read the paper this morning knows that.
In fact, a recent essay in Financial Times argued that, in business lingo, the phrase “in the future” has been all but replaced by “going forward”—a substitution that at the very least suggests some ambivalence about the time to come. Could it be that Black Mountain didn’t get the memo? Or perhaps they did and the title of the new album is just a paean to a more optimistic time. The lyrics of “Wucan” imply that’s the case: “I know you don’t/Ever want to get someplace where you cannot believe,” McBean sings. It’s a sentiment that smacks of Woodstock-era spiritualism, though the music is about as far from hoary as a bunch of long-haired rockers can get. Drummer Joshua Wells’ midtempo breakbeat practically screams “sample me, already.” And his bandmates churn out chilly, modernist arpeggios as if melody were less important than rhythm.
This is about as close as Black Mountain gets to an original sound; the following track is more representative of its mission. Equal parts “Wild Horses” and “Old Man,” the tuneful “Stay Free” could’ve been an FM-radio staple during the ’70s. That decade, more than any other, informs a majority of In the Future, an album that, musically at least, is more recombinant than prophetic. Black Mountain’s signature talent lies not in forging ahead but in pairing two previously unpaired sounds—specifically, the proto-metallic swagger of Led Zeppelin and the arty rhythms of Can. This blend of hard blooze and Teutonic funk reached its pinnacle on “Druganaut,” a 3:47 track from Black Mountain’s debut that could go on for twice—perhaps three or four times—as long and still be too brief.
The “Druganaut” template is so appealing that even its retreads on the new album, such as “Angels” and “Stormy High,” prove to be the disc’s highlights. Of course, what band would make a sprawling, futuristically themed recording just to show off a single type of songwriting? The whole point is to stretch out, which is what Black Mountain tries to do. The band dutifully attempts to show off its range—more country rock (“Wild Wind”), a ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place on Sticky Fingers (“Night Walks”), and a 17-minute rip-off of “Immigrant Song” (“Bright Lights”)— and, in doing so, shows how little range it has. Webber, an excellent vocalist in the PJ Harvey mold, saves some of the duller moments by virtue of her quavering, powerful presence. But not even she can save “Evil Ways,” a rumbling Bo Diddley sound-alike that is every bit as stale as its title.
According to Allmusic.com, there are 126 recordings with that title (and that’s not including variants such as “Evil Wayz” and “Evil Ass Wayz”). The most famous one, of course, is the Santana tune, a Latinized rock number that reached the Top 10 back in 1970. Give or take a few months, that’s probably the last year when In the Future would’ve seemed, you know, futuristic. Which is not to say that the album is a letdown. It’s just that, regardless of the intent behind the album’s title, In the Future serves primarily as a reminder that past concepts of progress haven’t kept up with the real world.
Shortly before Black Mountain formed, one of the best-known futurists around was science-fiction author William Gibson—who no longer writes about the future because, as he recently told the Washington Post, the present has “jacked itself up to my level of weirdness.” In that sense, Black Mountain need not try so hard. Lyrically, at least, songs such as “Tyrants” and “Queens Will Play” are every bit as jacked up as Gibson’s latest, Spook Country. The future, it seems, is already here. It’s just not all it was cracked up to be.