I have yet to read a write-up of a Wilderness show or album that doesn’t compare the Baltimore quartet to John Lydon’s Public Image Limited or the grouchy emo mire of Lungfish. In all honesty, I detect more of a shotgun marriage between Tears For Fears and Hot Water Music, but never mind: clearly Wilderness is a group readymade for ’80s wave aficionados (both no- and new-) and those who like their songs moody, melancholy, and/or morose. In case you missed the boat on their self-titled debut last year, Wilderness drops atmospheric, slow grinds that ponder but rarely lumber, while “singer” James Johnson bellows incomprehensibly a la—take your pick—Lydon, David Byrne, David Yow, and the rest of rock’s great anti-vocalists. Their sound is big. Really big. Everything echoes, drummer Will Goode never goes easy on the toms, guitarist Colin McCann shimmers, plinks (but never drones), and Brian Gossman’s bass is as loud and steady as a cop knocking on your door. The hooks are terrific, but don’t let my Tears For Fears reference lead you astray; Wilderness is on Jagjaguwar Records (“The Saddle Creek For Grownups”) not American Idol, and their new record, Vessel States, bears zero crossover appeal.
“The Blood Is On The Wall” opens the record with a slow afterthought of a guitar arpeggio, while James Johnson howls the song’s title slowly and hauntingly. A recent review of Vessel States suggested buying the record on vinyl and playing it at 45 RPM and, sure enough, something seems off about these first few moments before the key shifts and McCann picks out a gorgeous set of chords, sounding distinctly like Johnny Marr on Quaaludes. “Beautiful Alarms,” the second track, is propelled by tribal rhythms not unlike those heard on the Liars’ recent Drum’s Not Dead, while the rest of the group concocts a contrasting soundscape of wails and staccato minor chords.
Forty minutes is the perfect dosage of Wilderness and the album ends mid-chord, literally leaving you not only wanting but also expecting more. Vessel States almost blows its load after the wicked breakdown midway through “Last”—probably the best song here—but there’s plenty of melodic mope-rock and shoegaze-y reverberations to admire if that’s the sort of thing you dig in the first place. The toughest sell is Johnson’s vocals—at their most obnoxious on the otherwise stunning “Gravity Bent Light,” and at their finest on the closer “Monumental,” which is like the Cranberries re-recording “Linger” in a Soviet gulag. As a singer, Johnson can be equal parts evocative, grating, and familiar. In other words, he’s the perfect frontman for Wilderness, a band intent on proving that even if you don’t sound unique, you can still sound unusual. And you can still knock the audience’s socks on their asses.