(Jagjaguwar; 2005)

By Amir Nezar | 27 July 2005

You know what I love about Wilderness? When I first heard their eponymous album, the first thing I said to myself was, “Huh.”

Most recent artists have tried their damnedest to fit supply (their music) to demand (the latest hot trend). But the best recent artists have been those whose creative paths have artfully avoided the bustling, ugly, clogged roads of freak-folk or punkish British invasion or ADD-quirk-pop and mined gold in their own unselfconscious style. No irony, no “indie rock you take yourself too seriously” (why do you care?), no bloated projects. Because good supply will create its own demand.

So I said “huh” and knew that Wilderness was up to some interesting music—but not because it was novel. I was struck precisely because I could sense the tradition behind them (Echo and the Bunnymen, shades of Galaxie 500, Talk Talk) but found myself completely unable to anticipate or predict the course of the music I was experiencing. Invariably, that feeling is the single most thrilling feeling for me as a critic: not being able to see through the end of a song, but seeing, in retrospect, that everything up until that end held to a beautiful logic.

Part of Wilderness’s unpredictability is in their instrumental ethic, which takes the scenic route away from typical pop structures and into textural development and organic guitar interplay. It’s not really shoegaze, but it is hauntingly, airily beautiful. In any given song, a single guitar refrain, when traceable, changes character almost imperceptibly over the course of the song, thanks to contrasting guitar tones, evolving accompanying guitar lines, cymbal variations, bass work, etc. Percussion moves fluidly, adaptively, unpredictably and powerfully through a kind of natural ebb and flow of intensity and subsidence.

But the single most unpredictable and, in some ways, arresting element in Wilderness’s ethereal musical cloud is James Johnson’s voice, which flashes through each song like heat lightning. Leaping through registers and attaining colors of melodic brilliance, it’s unsettling, strong, and strangely august; each syllable he utters in his commanding cadence sounds sacred coming from his lips, especially with such transcendent accompanying music to elevate it.

But transcendence shouldn’t necessarily imply joy or rapture—while “Marginal Over’s” rising guitar figures are as regal and resplendent as cumulus clouds, the more sporadic bursts and churning contrasting guitars of “Arkless,” combined with Johnson’s fragmented delivery, communicate a beautiful anxiety. And the immense guitar bloom of “Fly Further to See” is darkened by Johnson’s anthemic, bittersweet delivery.

Everywhere both instruments and vocals carry a moving urgency and a striking melody, washing over percussion that ripples, rumbles and writhes like a sea in turmoil. It makes for a nearly holy storm of aesthetic beauty and artistic achievement. Shunning easier tropes of catchiness and volume, Wilderness manage to tap into primal emotions—and create an indelibly deep impression—with skill, patience, and ambition. Yeah, it’s serious stuff, but it’s profoundly more affecting and wondrous than most of last month’s fluff. If your music diet has seemed unbearably light lately, Wilderness provide an alternative with strength, heart, and beauty. And those are things that irony, cleverness, and trends can’t touch.