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Review: Black Mountain, 'IV'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Black Mountain, <em>IV</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Black Mountain, IV

Since its inception, the Vancouver band Black Mountain has engaged with heavy music in many ways, without letting it dominate its multivariate sound. The group's 2004 debut featured a different style or flavor of rock or folk in every track, from campfire strumming to emotional epics to impossibly deep grooves, to the point where it was difficult to tell what kind of band it was trying to be. From 2008, In The Future provided a lean, muscular response, and 2010's Wilderness Heart functioned as a light rejoinder, polished for radio and loaded with acoustic guitars.

IV (technically the group's fifth album, if you count its Year Zero soundtrack) returns, in a sense, to Black Mountain's debut: It's the work of a band that isn't content to define itself by any one style, but has traveled a long way to become what it is today. At least part of that progress can be attributed to the truckload of analog synthesizers burning and bubbling all over IV, helping to present a sense of retro-futurism that underscores the album's tone of doom and despair. The synths help make IV appropriate for listening in a shagged-out conversion van, or in the planetarium laser shows of old; at times, it recalls the works of bands like Zombi or Danava.

Vocalists Stephen McBean and Amber Webber play to their strengths — the former sounding like a burnout wise beyond his years, the latter like a veritable Mother Of Sorrow who brings her songs low with a tough but tremulous alto. Mostly, though, IV is where Black Mountain explores its inner sadness, though it's nicely offset by the synths: The Paisley Underground death-rocker "Cemetery Breeding" and the spaced-out atmospherics of "Defector" benefit from their presence, while "Crucify Me," the record's most forlorn piece, is pulled from the abyss through the uplift they bring. The lines converge in the epic "Space To Bakersfield," which channels a gentle beat and generous beds of synth tones, but is cut through with blazing acid guitar.

Even the cover art of IV depicts the stress and malaise of a future out of control: A space-suited figure's face is obscured by a visor as flames burst out on manicured lawns, the SST Concorde in flight overhead. It's of a piece with the explorations on IV: cut from a cloth of wild fantasy and chilling isolation, like a stack of sci-fi paperbacks come to life.

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Doug Mosurock