Give me a break. The idea that Wilderness could somehow be responsible for the resurgence of emotive rock — that this Baltimore quartet could somehow resurrect every sincere art-house band from London to L.A., as some critics have claimed — is patently ridiculous. These guys aren’t about to make emo bands palatable, or call the Strokes’ cooler-than-thou bluff, or hang any deejays. No one’s starting any revolution here.
What we can be sure of is just how phenomenally good that little record was that started all this twaddle. The band’s ten-track debut took one simple lo-fi formula — reverb-soaked guitar, sulking bass, regal percussion and fantastically bloated, chest-pounding vocal nonsense — and transformed it into some of the most meaningful, mysterious rock in years. Wilderness is one of those life-changing records you find next to the Playboys under your older brother’s bed. Nothing’s the same again.
In fact, with that opening salvo behind them, the members of Wilderness have more than enough riding on their follow-up without the responsibility of carrying the burden of “serious” or “cerebral” or whatever-you-want-to-call-it rock music. Considering that Vessel States hits stores a little more than eight months after the debut, it’s debatable whether the band’s accolades could have had even a passing influence on the new tunes. I’m guessing not. Ninety percent of Vessel States‘ nine tracks could have been pulled note for note, guitar tone for guitar tone, from the debut. The central guitar riff from “Last” has all the chiming charm and noble cadence that marked earlier tunes such as “Marginal Over” or “Say Can You See.” Though his pitch has thankfully improved, James Johnson continues to sing in his now familiar half-drunk, half-mad call to arms, and his lyrical imagery persists in its jagged, stubborn associations — making a kind of primal sense out of “immortal a-mortality” and “it’s all here, scrape the ghost, shattered in tears.”
But Vessel States‘ uncanny familiarity is its central disappointment. Much of the album sounds as if Wilderness emerged from the studio in summer 2004 and walked directly into the recording sessions for the new album. The album’s songs sound almost interchangeable. If anything, drummer Will Goode and bassist Brian Gossman have lost some of the rhythmic punch that tore through the debut, and although his tone remains as formidable and authentic as ever, Colin McCann’s guitar hasn’t stepped up to fill the void. Only “Gravity Bent Light” manages to turn a new page in the Wilderness story. Assisted by a few rare overdubs, Johnson’s many voices roll through several laborious, syllable-by-syllable hallelujahs before settling on a two-chord, organ/guitar dirge that marks the album’s emotional climax and its best track.
The failure here is not about musical execution, or aesthetic sensibility, or emotional impact — all the things that matter most — but about willful replication. Vessel States attempts and quite often achieves the exact same heights Wilderness reached less than a year ago with its debut. The task now is to approach perfection from a new angle. For once, a bit more studio knob-twiddling and rock-star neurosis would do a band some good.
“End of Freedom” MP3 (Right Click Save As)
“Arkless” MP3 (Right Click Save As)