Wilderness – S/T

Post-rock has evolved since the days of Slint. Early post-rock bands shifted the emphasis from vocals to instrumentation, relying more on the communicative powers of guitars and drums than the more literal language of a lead singer. The next step in the evolution, however, saw the role of the lead singer disintegrate. Bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor replaced singing with spoken-word recordings, often highlighting strange characters’ dissertations on things like war and Coney Island. Subsequent bands, Explosions in the Sky being the best among them, eliminated the use of words altogether. The instruments were finally thrust to center stage, their more universal language supplanting the local dialect of simple speech.

Well, with Wilderness, post-rock has finally come full-circle. The band’s songs have been compacted in length, most existing within the realm of three to five minutes. Guitars and drums are still played up and still have a notable expressive repertoire, but vocals have returned to hog the spotlight. Singer James Johnson finds himself in a similar position to that of Slint’s frontman in that he struggles to find a place among the eloquent instrumentation, his inadequate voice often getting lost in the mix. Whereas Slint’s singer stuck to singing, Johnson has abandoned the practice altogether; he mostly trades in an atonal sing-speak, not often drawing out his notes or veering off course from his flat tonal range.

Unfortunately, this often detracts from the wildly animated, expansive sound of the rest of the band. The guitars are eerily alive, climbing over and around slimey riffs like vines on a wall. The drums rely heavily on toms to convey a more instrumental, rather than percussive, sound. The two instruments intertwine seamlessly, expressing more often than not a sense of desperate crescendo. Given free range, the band can reach epiphanic heights effortlessly. Given the lead weight of Johnson’s vocals, however, Wilderness does not often succeed in getting its sound so impressively far off the ground.

The combination of excellent instrumentation and leaden vocals is, unsurprisingly, simply a good album that falls disappointingly short of full praise. Johnson’s vocals will undoubtedly turn off many first-time listeners, but to those who persevere, Wilderness offers an impressive, if not fully realized, return to the earlier days of post-rock. Those who find themselves unable to accept Johnson’s dissonance would be better served seeking out anything by Explosions in the Sky.