Monday, November 01, 2010

On Black Mountain and the importance of originality in evaluating art

Is an unoriginal band an uninteresting band?

Black Mountain is an entirely unoriginal five-piece rock band from Vancouver. You can easily trace everything the band does—the songs, sound(s), schtick, and singing—back to 1970s psychedelic-, prog- and proto-metal-rock acts like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, often right down to particular keyboard tones and/or drum fills.

Black Mountain also offers a far more straightforward pastiche than an act like, say Grizzly Bear, who, while drawing inspiration from The Beach Boys, also filter and fuse that influence to create something that’s at least partly original. One critic I just read described Black Mountain’s music as “timeless” but I think he musta been an idiot, cause this is seventies music through and through.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m a Black Mountain fan and I find their work interesting. I grew up listening to a lot of the same bands they’re influenced by and believe they have the skills and talent to write and perform this type of music in a satisfying way. For example, Steve McBeard is a sick guitarist, Joshua Wells is a sick drummer, Jeremy Schmidt is a sick keyboard player and Matt Camirand is a competent bassist. Amber Webber, though, who co-sings lead with McBean, is probably the most important band member. First of all, she’s almost certainly a better singer than you are. Secondly, she’s a woman, so when she wails and moans, it makes us think of “The Great Gig in the Sky” instead of Ronnie James Dio, and her powerful piping provides a perfect contrast to McBeard’s Reed-inspired deadpan (though The Bearded One does emote a lot more on the band’s latest album).

Black Mountain has so far produced three albums that, despite their rooting in traditional genres, cover a lot of musical territory, from Zeppelin-inspired Englishcottagefolk to Zeppelin-inspired monsterriffage to Zeppelin-inspired swampbluesrawk. Also, they’re a really cool-looking band. A lot of other people, including “serious music fans” and “music critics,” share my opinions. So Black Mountain has “cred.”

Still, I would argue that Black Mountain’s traditionalism holds their work back from entering the realm of Great Art. Timeless, groundbreaking, risky, important; their work is none of these things. It’s like this: I’m a huge Group of Seven fan. I think those dudes made some important and timeless and groundbreaking and risky paintings. Also, I like the way their paintings look. Now if some young artist came along today and started painting stuff that looks like Group of Seven, I’d go, “I like the way this looks.” But I wouldn’t argue that dude is making important or timeless or groundbreaking or risky paintings. I certainly wouldn't argue that dude was making Great Art. So while completely unoriginal bands might be interesting, they’re never going to be important.



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