If there’s one thing we learned from the last few “proper” Guided By Voices albums, it’s that some bands shouldn’t cut their eccentricities and play it straight. Too often the bands that are best when they’re untethered don’t find sharp new sounds with precision but rather a soft, claustrophobic middle that squeezes out their charms and strengths.
So you’d be forgiven for being skeptical of a Black Mountain record that aims at precision, especially when 2008’s excellent In the Future was about as wide open as a record gets. But Wilderness Heart is turns out to be a record that benefits from a limited scope. The band doesn’t aim for the middle here, but instead concentrates on the extreme poles of its sound, the lightest and heaviest moods, and injects them with a controlled but volatile immediacy.
The guitar licks still come in heavy droves all over the record. The title track manages to achieve their deepest low end — rumbling stronger in four minutes than In the Future‘s “Bright Light” did in 18. Along with the dusty churn of “Old Fangs” and the speed-rock of “Let Spirits Ride” (which fully realizes those Black Sabbath comparisons), it’s clear right away that in all their scaling down, Black Mountain hasn’t forgotten about the heavy hooks we love.
But the musicians also play deep into their folk leanings here, with surprisingly consistent results. “Radiant Hearts” begins with warm pastoral guitars and keys but cools into a chilling thump, filled out by synth-lines straight out of some scary ’70s B-movie. “Sadie” closes the record with a haunting quiet, instruments barely there while Stephen McBean and Amber Webber groan out ghostly harmonies. Other tunes, particularly the excellent “The Way to Gone,” mesh the folk with the hard rock, letting acoustics jangle under shredding solos, to better effect than McBean’s work with Pink Mountaintops.
Lyrically, Wilderness Heart picks up where the others left off. McBean and Webber both offer gauzy stories of exploration, or breaking free, that usually melt with the heady sound of the music more than they rise above it. In fact, the lyrics only stick out when they trip up a bit. “Rollercoaster” has some of the best riffs on the record, but gets hampered by lines about how “I’ll cradle you beneath my wings,” which may add to the solidarity weaving through the record, but feels too ham handed. And the spare ballad “The Space of Your Mind” feels a little too out in the wilderness, with suns breathing bodies in and a perplexing allusion to “flesh-covered stories,” whatever those may be.
Still, you’ve got to hand it to Black Mountain for following their expansive sophomore album with perhaps the more daring precise one without losing their considerable strengths in the deal. Wilderness Heart is tight but never overly controlled, and it varies in all the ways you could possibly want it to. It’s a Black Mountain record through and through, that’s for sure. It’s got the guitars, it’s got the churning rhythm section, it’s got Amber Webber’s otherworldly howl, and it’s got Stephen McBean up front leading them through the haze. But while they don’t get as lost on their record as the do on previous ones, they still manage to find just as much.