Oct 10, 2008, 05:40AM

Artful Wilderness

A Baltimore group sheds its visceral influences, ramps up the pretentiousness, and creates a beautiful, moody masterpiece called (k)no(w)here.

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Since releasing their self-titled debut in mid-2005, Wilderness has received frequent comparisons to another Baltimore band, brazen post-punk pioneers Lungfish, who've put out about a dozen albums in the last 20 years. Wilderness has in fact played with Lungfish—opening for them, for example, at one of their first concerts in 2003 at D.C.’s Black Cat—and frontman James Johnson has been working on a Daniel Higgs-style bristly "spare some change?" beard (I'm not sure what that's all about). But Johnson's voice is more powerful than Higgs’, kind of like Public Image Ltd.'s John Lydon on crack. PiL is another frequent comparison for Wilderness, most often in terms of drumming, with PiL's The Flowers of Romance an obvious forebear to Wilderness' Vassal States.

Now, with their third LP, (k)no(w)here, due out Nov. 4 on Jagujaguwar, Wilderness has left those comparisons behind. Not that Johnson's vocals aren't the yawling back-alley chants they've always been, or that Will Goode's drumming doesn't have more than a little PiL to it, but (k)no(w)here is more of an anthemic concept album than any of Wilderness' previous art-rock efforts. This makes sense; (k)no(w)here was in part the band's collaboration with artist Charles Long for the 2008 Whitney Biennial. Maybe you remember Long's previous work with Stereolab for The Amorphous Body Study Center, now found at the Minneapolis' Walker Art Center. Under Long's direction, Wilderness worked to make (k)no(w)here not quite an album of songs, per se, though all the songs are distinct enough, but rather a single musical construction—during my first listen, song one had turned into song four without my even knowing it.

Everything on (k)no(w)here is slower, and more carefully produced than the band’s previous work. Songs are beautifully built up and put together before they're taken apart again. On "Marginal Over," the first song on their 2005 debut, the song kicks off with drums and Interpol-like distorted reverb guitar riffs. On "High Nero," the first song on (k)no(w)here, a minute-and-a-half of humming muted distortion gives way to Goode's slow drumming at about the 1:30-mark, followed by lead guitar around 2:00. Johnson doesn't start singing till almost three minutes in: "Why oh why do we think of what we are sold?" turns into a kind of chorus.

Guitarist Colin McCann, who has come into his own after his recent four track solo project, The Lord Dog Bird, now offers Wilderness some vocals of his own, backing up Johnson on songs like "Own Anything" and "Chinese Whisperers." McCann has a strong voice, and that he even keeps up with Johnson is impressive. "Own Anything," my favorite song on the album, finds the two raucously trading off on the lines "if you get there before I do / carve a hole and pull me through," backed by Brian Gossman's artful bass lines and Goode's Sunny Day Real Estate-like drumming.

(k)no(w)here, far more than past Wilderness albums, lets all the members of the band show off a little—and we should all be very, very grateful for that. Gossman and Goode trade off some particularly accomplished bass and drum parts on "Strand the Test of Time" and "Soft Cage." and McCann's backing vocals on "(p)ablum" offer up some beautiful harmonies—not to mention his Paul Maroon style guitar playing on” Silver Gene" and "<....^....>" (yeah, that's the actual title of the song).

Their two-year break, then, between Vassal States and (k)no(w)here, proved remarkably successful. (k)no(w)here isn't just a reworking of Wilderness' familiar art-rock/post-punk influences—so we can drop all the talk about Lungfish, PiL, Echo and the Bunnymen, Eno's collaborations with The Talking Heads, etc. It's as exciting an album as any you'll come across in 2008, and I hope will earn Wilderness some much deserved mainstream press.

  • it's so strange, because even though wilderness claims to be a baltimore band, I haven't heard a peep out of them in years! do hey live elsewhere now?

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  • I dug Wilderness' self-titled first record but absolutely HATED vessel states. totally put me to sleep. I haven't heard this new one but it sounds interesting, I totally forgot about these guys. I don't think I've seen them live in almost two years!

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