For a band named Wilderness, the Baltimore quartet make dissonant art-rock that’s distinctly urban, full of throat in a way that develops when you’re shouting to be heard in cities that never break or breathe. They specialize in a kind of crescendo minimalism: Through two albums of often shapeless cacophony (featuring thick, intertwined guitars and tom-and-kick drumming), they’ve crafted long-form songs that, though patient and deep-lunged, rely on the anthemic bursts to which they lead. At the fore but not the center, then, there’s lead singer James Johnson, whose slurred vocal style’s been compared to figures like John Lydon and David Byrne. But within such minor tempests, he’s not a frontman per se: His warbling disconnects from the words issued and becomes just another instrument, his lyrics broken down into simple repeated cries and chants that rise above the band’s shapely chaos, a further element of their dim but aspirant atmospheres.
For their third album, (k)no(w)here, Wilderness set out to compose a single piece that could be split into “tracks” only in that they’d appear that way on your iPod. The record moves with an ear toward its broader gains as one song diced into eight, another crafty epic that takes its theme from this year’s headlines. But Johnson’s language is one of urgency, the meanings made by volume, the words lost in William Goode’s muscular tom-tom patterns. When the drums barge in over a dense guitar bed on “Strand the Test of Time,” Johnson recites, “Here comes the new law merchant” like it’s the last remembered phrase from a hobo’s brighter days. “Silver Gene” rings out a strange bedhead alarm, its clamoring guitars and clunky rhythms giving Johnson the nervous backdrop he needs to wail about the tongue-tieds and confused souls that populate his “songs.” “Chinese Whisperers,” the centerpiece of a sort, reveals the band’s talent for delaying gratification, elevating two minutes of repetitious guitar stabs and cymbal-ticks into a propulsive sweep of, well, the same parts set into frenetic motion, a jumbled din that makes perfect (non)sense behind Johnson’s madcap litany.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 5, 2008