I’ll admit it, when I first heard that Black Mountain was going to be soundtracking a movie my first thoughts were “What?!” and then “Interesting.” Upon finding out this was going to be accompanying a film set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, I was highly skeptical: you expect someone like Trent Reznor to be doing this kind of stuff, not an underground rock band (How coincidental that the album’s called Year Zero). To serve up a final “and then” moment, turns out this isn’t even some kind of Mad Max type movie. Rather, it’s a surf movie set on a post-apocalyptic Earth that pretty much focuses on surfers. My preconceptions had been shattered so many times, and I hadn’t even listened to the record.
Context is a wonderful thing though. It really is something to know some of the story surrounding an album before putting on your headphones, to already have thoughts and ideas floating around in the back of your mind while listening away. This is especially important for the older tracks that Black Mountain have taken from previous albums to sit alongside newer material made for this album; without a strong context backing them they could feel and sound tired, yet with the context of the movie behind them, the songs have a new lease of life thrust into them.
Take “Bright Lights” as the first example. When the track really gets going you can absolutely see it soundtracking a furious desert wasteland chase scene between the surfer heroes and the villains of the piece. You may have heard the song before, but you haven’t heard this version of it, with new meaning behind it. Towards its truncated end, the musical meltdown has a little more significance with the despair and dread feeling a little more genuine. “Tyrants” regal-style tempo and court drumming (at least that’s how I’d imagine an evil man’s court drums would sound) make you feel as if you’re in the presence of some despicable warlord; think Gary Oldman in The Book Of Eli. It’s eerie, creepy, it keeps you on edge and you just know something evil is going down. “Wilderness Heart” and “Modern Music” are much the same. They might be old songs but they fit perfectly into the album’s narrative, and the album’s narrative makes them feel new. All four inclusions are inspired choices by the band.
The new stuff is pretty ace too. As seems to be the case with any project that has a big emphasis on humanity’s future, synths play a large role. (These synths in particular are a different, weirder sounding set than the ‘70s style that the band usually uses to devastating effect.) “In Sequence” relies on them as the backbone of the piece; they bubble away softly as the songs builds itself up, while the intermittent appearance of a Pink Floyd “Echoes”-style sound keeps everything sounding very futuristic. “Embrace Euphoria” keeps things odd with a haunting melody played over a backdrop of randomly appearing synth sounds, whereas “Phosphorescent Waves” sounds structured and sparse, its ethereal melody working alongside a primal beat to keep that structure. Naturally, there are a couple of stirring new guitar-based pieces, but the synth-based material is the more intriguing and exciting of the newer pieces.
Soundtrack albums can often be hit and miss, but Black Mountain have really come up with something good on Year Zero. The new material is genuinely exciting to hear and leaves you wondering what they’re getting to put on the next LP. In addition, it’s evident they’ve paid great attention to the context of the film and the project, and chosen the right songs from their back catalogue to include alongside the specially made songs. It’s that care and attention that leaves the older songs sounding fresh and like they belong, the newer stuff sounding great and the album as a whole sounding cohesive and pretty awesome.
Plugging away since 1999, The National finally hit mainstream success with the release of their 2010 album High Violet. Of course, this entailed their first world tour, but in the new documentary Mistaken For Strangers, it’s only the backdrop for the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his younger brother Tom, who had no idea that these short videos he was shooting would turn into a public document of their troubled, if still loving brotherhood.
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