Title: IV
Artist: Black Mountain
Rating: 3/5 stars
Released: 01/04/16
Reviewed by: RUBEN MITA

For such a direct and to-the-point album title, IV is a surprisingly accurate summation of the music one can expect from Vancouver-based Black Mountain’s latest offering. That is to say, while most bands would refrain from reusing the title of an already-iconic classic rock album (Led Zeppelin’s technically-untitled IV, if you really don’t know), Black Mountain are entirely unashamed to show exactly what they are trying to be and what they are trying to create (a monumental work of large-scale prog rock). Does the five-piece band reach there? Not quite, but the journey often seems promising and they make some great sounds along the way.

One of the clearest changes from their previous albums is the prominence of keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt’s analog synthesisers. The first sound heard on the album, in the opening epic Mothers Of The Sun, is the rhythm of a single, pulsing repeated synth note, soon joined by co-vocalist Amber Webber’s beautiful warbling ’70s folk-mother vocals and layers of atmospheric pads.

The other vocalist, Vancouverite rock veteran Stephen McBean, has a more grounded and upfront voice that both contrasts and mixes brilliantly with Webber’s, on this track and the whole album. After starting the album in atmospheric build-up mode, Mothers explodes into a stomping, pure Sabbathian riff and squealing guitar solo. While not exactly boasting of innovation, turned up loud enough this track becomes a luscious wall of atmospherics.

Black Mountain have always been labelled as a ’70s revival band, and that remains largely true here, although in places the synthesisers lend a distinctively ’80s flavour to some of the songs. For example, the energetic retro TV-program-theme Florian Saucer Attack, with its pseudo-rock’n’roll beat decorated with whizzing ’80s space-age synths and a powerful vocal performance from Webber.

Next track and clear standout Defector also takes inspiration from the late ’70s and early ’80s, with a spacious wah-driven groove not dissimilar to Tame Impala’s (excellent) retro-pop dabblings on last year’s Currents. Then Webber’s vocals come in with a distorted guitar riff and the band soar straight back to their ’70s psychedelica roots, merging the two styles perfectly. Producer Randall Dunn’s brilliant sense of clarity and space in the mix elevates the whole album and shines particularly strongly on this track.

After these initial successes, the album doesn’t quite retain the same level of quality. You Can Dream is cheesy beyond the excuse of time period convention. No one should be delivering dramatically-chanted life messages with such painful earnest over those almost comical keyboard-demo synths. Cemetery Breeding is a remnant of the more radio-oriented pop-rock of their previous album, 2010’s Wilderness Heart, not a strength of the band.

However, Line Them All Up is a gorgeously melodious piece of ’70s psych-folk led by Webber. Space To Bakersfield, the hypnotic nine-minute psychedelic groove that wraps up the album, shows that while the Black Mountain of 10 years ago were at their best hacking out raw riff-laden tracks (I seriously recommend their self-titled Pixies-meets-Velvet Underground-meets-Sabbath debut), the Black Mountain of 2016 are strongest when focusing on texture and atmosphere over hooks, although there’s plenty of both throughout the album’s 50+ minute entirety.

IV, as their most sonically ambitious work yet, shows the band’s strengths and weaknesses in fairly equal measure. While it lacks the exciting impact of their best albums, it is scattered with stellar moments of lush sonic chemistry and big tunes just begging to be enjoyed at full volume with the lights out.

Standout Tracks: Defector, Mothers Of The Sun, Florian Saucer Attack, Line Them All Up