Six years can seem like an eternity in rock 'n' roll. Bands have formed and subsequently broken up in shorter spans of time, and even some of the all-time greats, such as The Police or The Pixies, essentially fit their entire careers in that length of time. And as digital media platforms like Bandcamp hasten the process of getting new releases to listeners' ears, a longer wait only works against an artist.
But then again, touring, recording and performing for six years nonstop sometimes necessitates taking a much-needed break. After Vancouver band Black Mountain released their 2010 album Wilderness Heart, the individual members each embarked on their own musical Rumspringa. Vocalist Amber Webber and drummer Joshua Wells focused on their Lightning Dust side project. Keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt scored a film under his Sinoia Caves alias. Bassist Matthew Camirand ended up exiting the band, and Colin Cowan took his place. And guitarist/vocalist Stephen McBean started a hardcore band, Obliterations.
The time away from each other gave the members of Black Mountain the space they needed, as well as some necessary distractions. And in the process, McBean says, the break ended up making the album stronger.
"We were on our own for a bit. And I think that helped with this record," he says in a phone call from Belgium. "It's nice to come back. We needed a break. Once you get a couple or three records in, you want the music to remain, hopefully, vital and energized and sometimes with the same people you gotta rearrange things.
"With the stuff that I play in Obliterations, I'm not gonna bring in a song to Black Mountain that sounds like Discharge or Jerry's Kids," he continues. "I still love that stuff. It's fun to play. We're in Europe now and lugging around what seems like thousands of pounds of gear. So it's nice to get back to the primal and just plug in and...you just go. But it's nice to have the old fancy analog synths and the Marshalls and the Hi-Watts. With music, it's always changing. It's the same as food. You always like pizza. But sometimes you want nachos, or maybe you want to get some sushi."
It only takes a small taste to detect the change in flavor on IV, the first set of music to come out of Black Mountain's kitchen since their extended hiatus. The first song on the album, "Mothers of the Sun," is an eight-minute prog odyssey built on misty, atmospheric synthesizers. It's a pretty significant distance from past doses of thunder such as "Old Fangs" or "Drugonaut," but before long, in comes a massive stoner rock riff that nods to past Black Mountain triumphs, as well as to the likes of Sabbath and Zeppelin.
IV is a dramatic new step for Black Mountain, in that so much of the album is driven by the sound of big synthesizers. However, it bridges their past triumphs with new textures, like the mixture of prog futurism and burly riffs on "Florian Saucer Attack," or the slowly building dirge "Over and Over (The Chain)", which came about after "doing bong hits and jamming and just recording on someone's phone," McBean says.
As fresh as the material sounds however, some of it was born much farther back in the band's history. The central riff on "Mothers of the Sun" was written in 2008, around the time In the Future came out. Not that this is an unusual practice for the band.
"Riffs are kind of like bank accounts," McBean says. "You store as many riffs as you can store in the riff bank... for down the road when you get older and softer."
Older, maybe, but Black Mountain hasn't softened a bit. Playing music in your 12th year as a band versus your second, however, requires thinking differently about your approach. Maintaining the energy to keep playing together that long is already enough of a challenge, but trying to keep the music fresh, McBean says, presents an entirely different set of obstacles.
"I guess that was something we struggled with when we were writing this record at first—trying to destroy formulas or walls or limitations we created," he says. "What we were as a band or what we weren't. When we first came out there was a real resurgence across North America of bands playing weird, loud rock music. It was all very exciting, and then you hone your skill a bit, but you're constantly in this battle of refining it better and playing something from the gut and from the heart. Being in a band is weird. You don't know...when you're going to start sucking."
Black Mountain play April 26 at The Casbah
With eyes toward the future, Black Mountain aren't tempering their ambition or worrying too much about whether or not they actually suck. In fact, the Metacritic score for IV is 76 out of 100, which would indicate that the consensus among critics is they have a way to go before sucking is a possibility. Even if it were, though, McBean still has a positive outlook on being able to play music for people and enjoy sharing art with people the world over.
"You can't get greedy with life. If you're able to write one song that fucking floors someone, that's awesome. That's killer," he says. "If you're able to have a song that people dig, and people sing along to, you can travel the world. That's amazing, too. I think people can get lost, or have your little explosion of spiritual self—wanting to stay alive and I dunno, try new kinds of nachos all over the world."