Boasting a title that only a grad student could love, Wilderness’s new album, (k)no(w)here, doesn’t exactly expand on their trademark sound anymore than bands like Lungfish or PiL (Wilderness’s two most commonly cited reference points in reviews such as this one) expanded on theirs. That’s okay, of course, since Wilderness has such an odd but invigorating understanding of what pop music can do that each time I return to them they sound fresh. The general critical reception of their last album, Vessel States, was lukewarm, and I expect (k)no(w)here will receive a similar refrain of ambivalence. My own review of Vessel States overdosed on name-dropping: These guys must sound like somebody, right?
Yeah, they do, but it’s become a moot point. Wilderness really gets under your skin and, with all of the hyperbolic enthusiasm of a convert, I keep feeling like this is some of the most challenging and inventive work I’ve heard from a four-piece rock group since, I don’t know, Scratch Acid maybe? With just one or two echo-drenched guitars, basslines that remind me of why God invented sub-woofers and drum work that sounds less like it’s coming from a kit than timpani, (k)no(w)here sounds as big as an opera. The band’s hugeness is also courtesy of James Johnson’s bellowing, mad-prophet vocals: He sings every word like he’s Moses coming down the mountain.
(k)no(w)here differs from Vessel States and the band’s 2005 self-titled debut in subtle but effective measures. Wilderness conceived of the music for the new record to accompany an installation by sculptor Charles Long’s Curious Notch collective at the Whitney Museum of American Art; indeed, (k)no(w)here unfolds like one long, single, contained piece. Some individual tracks certainly stand out as highlights (“Silver Gene” is their best song since “Say Can You See”), and the record is still a rock “album,” but it’s also a kind of tone poem. Three albums in, Wilderness’s music is becoming familiar, but its familiarity is still consistently startling and creative.