In “Way Gets Dark,” one of the more homespun acoustic tracks to behold on The Cold Stares’ awesome new alternative blues juggernaut Mountain, the band doesn’t rely on imagistic lyrics alone to create a visual experience to accompany the music. The eerie echo of the lightly plucked strings sends a chilling sense of danger in our direction, and the lack of emotion in lead singer Chris Tapp’s voice kills any comfortability that his warm southern drawl may have provided. It’s like the path in front of us is literally getting darker; we’re trapped in this dry but sharply tuned mix next to the guitar, our minds left to wander after the crisp melody that could be waiting just beyond the horizon.
Mountain is driven by its evocative soundscapes, which appear when we’re least expecting them. At fifteen tracks, this is a monstrous LP that offers plenty of intriguing moments for newcomers to The Cold Stares’ sound to get acquainted with their style, but its cohesive, somewhat progressive qualities are what will satisfy the group’s longtime fans more than anything else. As incredibly different in rhythm as “Cold Black Water” and “The Plan” are, they play together in this record flawlessly, as if they were two sides of the same coin. What they have in common is the jarring, neo-noir soundscape that we’re greeted with in track one, “The Great Unknown,” and unable shake for the duration of the record.
I found myself taken aback when I discovered that The Cold Stares are comprised only of singer/guitarist Chris Tapp and drummer Brian Mullins. The abrasive “Stickemup” gets started with a colorful little guitar tizzy that sounds like an amalgamation of several string instruments layered on top of each other, while Mullins’ drum kit sounds twice the size of any other I’ve heard lately. “Wade In The Darkness,” “Gone Not Dead,” and really any of the heavier tracks on the record feel so much more mechanical in their execution than what I was expecting, and yet they’re so far removed from the digitalized sound of robotic pop/rock that even the most subtle differences between their melodies and that of their contemporaries is hard to ignore in these songs.
The most somber moment in Mountain ironically might also be The Cold Stares’ most triumphantly reverent so far – “Under His Command,” a Gothic folk ballad that brands us with a smoky vocal by Tapp that plays more like an epitaph than it does a rock song. His words stick to the paper thin strings like glue, and wherever his prose takes them, they melodically respond – in the gauntest of minor keys. This is my favorite song on the record, not because of any machismo-fueled rock luster, but because of its dark, witty minimalism.
I think that the best way to experience Mountain is to listen to its fifteen songs from beginning to end in the chronological order that The Cold Stares’ arranged them. In what can only be described as an operatic approach to making a bluesy garage rock record, this album starts off with a sonic beat down (“The Great Unknown” and more modest “Friend of Mine”), escalates to more methodical, emotional grounds (“Under His Command,” and “Stickemup”) before letting the harmonies go off the rails (“Gone Not Dead,” “Wade in the Darkness,” and the bone-rattling “Child of God”) and giving into this duo’s penchant for fusing nimbly wound rock songs into analogue-style blues rants (“Cold Black Water,” “Two Keys and a Good Book” and “Killing Machine” just to name some highlights). There’s a lot for music enthusiasts to ponder in this album, but there’s just as much excitement for casual fans to discover in its intricately stylized songs as well.