Black Mountain builds an unhurried tension in their June 15 show at The Mill

The opener for the solid summer Wednesday evening crowd at The Mill this week was Majure, who preceded his reputation (signifying mostly a certain laziness on my part, as a Google search took me instantly to his profile). It was my second solo drum show, and while Majure lacked the explosive charisma of Glenn Kotche (who drums for Wilco), the addition of his own loops (to which he played) provided an excellent and engrossing (although somewhat loud) accompaniment. He was a technically impressive artist, but the loops that performed alongside him, while beautiful, provided a backdrop that seemed to hinder experimentation during his set. Nonetheless, it was impressive to watch as the drum kit became an extension of his body, and, as occurred in the movie Whiplash, to see the incredible speed and precision of which humans are capable. With almost every motion too quick for the eye to follow individually, it provided a paradoxical sense of his remaining still despite the changes of sound.

He proved a fit opener for Vancouver’s Black Mountain, a band whose work fits within a psychedelic tradition of long, expansive, repetitive instrumental solos. They’re a band whose albums are intriguing, but whose live shows fascinate. They opened with “Mothers of the Sun,” the first track on their newest album, IV. It was a tight rendition of the song, although the live mix accentuated some of the subtleties that had remained in the background on the album — most notably the keyboard work of Jeremy Schmidt.

The oddity of the distinctively ’80s synthesized sounds in a band whose glacial swells and intense crashes otherwise seem far more in line with more art-metal bands, pronounced within the setting of the Mill, worked far better than I would have imagined it could have. The synthesizer, throughout the show, provided a distinct and unique presence within the band — a particularly ’80s touch to a ’60s sound offered by an ’00s band. What’s best is that the band gathers each of its elements together in an authentic, unforced way, such that each part seems to truly and authentically belong.

Black Mountain at the Mill
Black Mountain played The Mill in Iowa City on June 15.

“Mothers,” like each of the songs that succeeded it, was performed far more aggressively in their live set than on the album: louder, faster, heavier, longer. It seemed as though the album were a sketchpad from which the musicians were able to paint a mural before our listening ears — faithful to the sketch in every way, but deepened and expanded in every sense of the term. As fits a tour in support of an album, the band worked in at least seven of the songs from their recent release — seeming, in a live context, to release them from a palatable but ultimately inadequate fate.

What was most notable to me about the performance was the patience of the band. Whether they began with tones on the keyboard or a sustained guitar chord was irrelevant. The audience was invited into a specific form of tension, punctuated with a percussive kick at slow intervals. This tension, as other instruments and guitars built atop it, expanded and swelled until it was drawn out into a series of repetitive meditations on a theme that eventually crashed, once more, into silence. Throughout, the band is patient. They allow one instrument — or two — to carry on the labor of the song as they adjust guitars or take a drink, or pause, gathering energy, before finding their precise place to insert themselves and join the song. The song has its pace, and, attending faithfully to the song, they allow it to unfold as it will. The guitar seemed to languidly roll through its reverb, persistent, but unhurried. Perhaps it is precisely because the band aggressively presented the material that the glacial slowness of the song’s unveilation as a complete artistic object allowed their show to become so entrancing. Despite the tension built in the architecture of the song, which pushed to reach some sort of climax, the band found a joy in prolonging the time before completion. It was a patience that lacked the distracting challenge of endurance.

Although Stephen McBean’s vocals were not improved by a live delivery, those of Amber Webber were. She pitched her notes with a prolonged vibrato, reminiscent of Grace Slick at moments. She harmonizes well with McBean, and their voices added a richness in combination that nuanced hers and improved on his. This was most notably true in “Space to Bakersfield,” which Webber carried through a chantlike surge of human voice as instrument, rather than conveyer of lyrics. It was sublime, as was the entirety of the evening.

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