Wilderness Emerges From Its Nowhere Land With Its Nowhere Plans--For The Moment
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If the voice could be more epic, you'd swear it was God himself. Wilderness' James Johnson doesn't so much boom as he does penetrate. His singing--if that is the even the right word--radiates power as a sort of dark energy, like a finely burnished, less enunciated Daniel Higgs. It's soothing and unnerving at the same time, what you imagine freezing to death might feel like.
His lyrics are not impenetrable, but they certainly don't stand for anything easy or literal. Call them political, sure. "Thought control to conjure the fears of the people/ mind control to cover the ears of the people," he sings on Wilderness' new record (K)no(w)here (Jagjaguwar). Then, later, he sings something as simultaneously clear and bewildering as "to think what you knew/ the thought that came and went on through/ so you knew."
Johnson explains that line as a queer sort of literalism. "The music directly influences the lyrics," he says by phone from his home in Baltimore. "It's a spontaneous relationship. I feel as though I'm translating the music into a word pattern. That's what it says to me."
Indeed, Wilderness, musically, is similarly a tough beast to get a bead on. It's identifiably postpunk--or arcing, dramatic postrock. It is tense and repetitive, grand in scale, plodding, and even pretty. Pitched, glassy guitars run throughout the album--textures you'd expect in a quick, sharp math-rock song, not filling out an atmosphere. It feels illusionary, as if you were to reach out and grab it that wisp of pop palpability would slip away. Songs trundle on for up to eight minutes and get lost in their own interludes. Johnson holds his words out for measures that feel like minutes, leaving them unrecognizable, a powerful instrumental lead, falling just within the bounds of language. (K)no(w)here makes the band's 2005 self-titled Jagjaguwar debut sound like "normal" indie-rock.
(K)no(w)here, however, wasn't even written to be a record. The album was conceived in a relatively short couple of months last spring as an accompaniment to a performance art/video piece created by multimedia artist Charles Long. It was short notice: the piece was to be performed at the 2008 Whitney Biennial. (Wilderness was one of only three live musical acts to be involved. The other two were Gang Gang Dance and Lucky Dragons.)
The pieces, composed to be performed as one continuous song during the exhibition, were essentially unscripted. But "we had a direction in mind," Johnson says. The first time it was performed was at the Biennial, in a scene that's some combination of surreal and ironic. (You can find one short YouTube clip of the event, in which Wilderness is performing the part of the composition that would become the song "Strand the Test of Time.")
The performance is in a darkened, white-walled gallery space. A staircase climbs up one corner of the room, with a landing halfway up where the band is set up. It's disorienting. As probably intended, it makes the band appear as both participant and oddly removed from the scene, but the music is loud and apocalyptic. Johnson is really into it, laying halfway on the landing, with his torso lower on the stairs. And he's bellowing. There's always something strange and special about hearing music traveling from another room and this hits the nail on the head. There's a video being projected, but the clip doesn't do it justice. A costumed woman stands at the bottom of the staircase motioning with two mirror covered paddles, like she's directing disco-ball traffic. The clip is short, yes, but enough to get some sense of Wilderness as a component in an art installation. It feels almost like the band is being kept in a cage, presented behind theoretical bars for the safety of a visual arts crowd.
Treat that 28-second clip as a signifier. For nearly the past two years, that's about all we have of the band--scarcely any local live shows (just one last spring at Floristree), and no new album until this month. Where, for a time in early aughts Baltimore, Wilderness could be seen as often as, say, Double Dagger, now the band is split bi-coastally, with bassist Brian Gossman living in California. Even talking to Johnson, you get the sense that he's only about half there (not a dis, just a difficult conversation), that this band exists more in practice than theory. Like, you imagine after a show, the band is like, What just happened there? Some kind of deep, possessed sleepwalking, perhaps.
If you're bummed at missing that first Baltimore Wilderness show in g-d knows how long, it could be worse. If Long hadn't been listening to an earlier album by the band while he was working on an unrelated piece of artwork and hadn't sent an e-mail to Johnson asking if the band would like to score his Biennial film, we might not have (K)no(w)here at all. Before being asked, the band had "no plans for a new album," Johnson says.
And talking to Johnson, you also get the idea that the usual indie band stratagem isn't a concern, that Wilderness is more at the whims of things beyond its control--like Johnson's nearly free associative lyricism or music that feels like a spontaneous outpouring that could go on for 20 or 200 minutes, rather than eight. So long as there's a good reason to materialize, perhaps Wilderness will.