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Magical Mystery 

Meet Black Mountain, the latest in a series of fine Canadian bands

It seems these days, you can't even walk out of your house without being bombarded by yet another amazing band-collective from Canada. Prepare yourself: Yet another avalanche is about to descend.

This time, it's Vancouver's Black Mountain, whose founding member, Stephen McBean, also has another geographic-feature-named band, Pink Mountaintops. Black Mountain members Amber Webber, Joshua Wells, Matt Camirand, and Jeremy Schmidt all have other side projects and bands they're a part of. (Most recently, Wells and Webber released an album with their project Lightning Dust.)

So the questions remain: What's the big deal about Black Mountain? What's their twist on the musical collective thing? Why should I rip my ears away from all of those Montreal and Toronto bands and go West, young man?

Because, as keyboardist Schmidt explained, Black Mountain aren't trying to be progressive. They're not trying to wow you with apocalypse or avant-garde experimentation. They're just trying to make music that sounds magical to them, music that evokes the music they listened to growing up, music that is exciting in its blend of strange and recognizable. They're creating a musical chemistry that is intoxicating.

"I grew up with a lot of music, and it has this sort of overwhelming resonance for me," said Schmidt. "Hearing sounds that you heard when you grew up, before you had really made up your mind about what was good ... when you didn't know anything about it, it was sort of pure electrical magic or something. I think a lot of us are just inspired by that. When there's this sort of collision between something new and something familiar, that, to me, is the ultimate moment in music."

The familiar that is present in Black Mountain's music is '60s and '70s psychedelic and acid rock--Webber's voice can wail like Grace Slick; the guitars get dark and scary like Iron Butterfly; and McBean's voice takes on David Bowie-esque nuances--but the emotive reaction is decidedly not nostalgic. Something about the catchiness and energy of the songs makes them sound fresh. Hence, the title of their sophomore full-length, In the Future, just released on Jagjaguwar, is not as ironic as many would at first believe.

"We figured people would kind of run with that one a little bit," admitted Schmidt. "It wasn't really ironic; the inspiration didn't stem from any kind of poetic irony. It's actually the title of a song that we had that didn't make it on the album, which is kind of funny. In the lyrics, there was kind of a play on words, and in relation to how we're perceived as being anything but the future, there's a lot of play in the title."

While Black Mountain's sound is definitely inspired by music of the past, what's more interesting is the way they bring that sound into the present (and hopefully the future) and make it relevant. They are, in a sense, playing with the music that inspired them as children, but instead of that play coming across as merely derivative or regressive, it's infused with the same sense of awe that made those sounds inspiring to begin with.

On "Stormy High," the first song on In the Future, Webber's wail keeps the aggression of the grinding guitars and pulsing organs in perfect check. But the idea of letting go of inhibitions in order to free oneself is at the heart of In the Future. The psychedelic mentality here is much more advanced than just the standard "tune in and drop out"--you've got to tune in, drop out, free your mind and then drop back in. "C'mon, lay your halo down," begs McBean at the beginning of "Angels." "Wucan" has a slightly creepy, slightly joyous hook that works into a snake-charm effect, heightened by McBean's repeated warning of, "You don't want to get to a place where you cannot believe." "Evil Ways" becomes a much less laid-back sequel to the Santana song that shares a similar lyric--"It ain't easy but you've got to change your evil ways," cries McBean, making the plea somehow all inclusive and much more immediate.

The penultimate song on In The Future, the 16-minute-long "Bright Lights," moves from repetitive cantation into aural peaks and valleys that don't even need outside influences to make them hallucinatory: The freeing of the mind here needs to come from within rather than without. "Night Walks," the last song on the record, has Webber's voice echoing and vibrating with gorgeous intensity over sustained organ chords, and when Webber sings "the shadow my only company, and it moves with me and it walks just like me," it's redemptive, haunting and a completely grounded ending to a very psychedelic record.

The chemistry within is the powerful force on In the Future, and it's also the force that, said Schmidt, makes the music sound the way it does. When everyone is involved in so many musical projects, the only way to decide which one to put more energy into at any given moment is to go with what feels right, and, said Schmidt, something about the group of people that makes up Black Mountain just seems to work.

"I definitely feel like there's a chemistry there and that there's something that happens when this group of people get together and work on music, so that seems like a good thing, so we're just rolling with it," he said.

When asked where he thinks that chemistry comes from, Schmidt replied: "It's not something you want to ponder too much. You don't want to ponder magic too much, or you'll find out it's just a trick."

Pondering Black Mountain's magic too much might not reveal it as a trick, but it'll definitely lead you back to the same place from which you began--that the magic is created by re-creating the magic. That, after all, is the definition of magic--unexplainable phenomena, like the ability of yet another Canadian music collective to make even more amazing music.

More by Annie Holub

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