If we’ve learned anything from rock `n’ roll, it’s that you don’t really have to know how to sing to be a singer. You can scream. You can whisper. You can talk. You can shriek. You can whine. It really doesn’t matter, as long as it goes well with the music. And if you’re going to do away with singing, you better own whatever it is you plan on doing, because otherwise, it’s either going to sound manufactured or emotionless. And really, who would want either? So, non-singers, take note. Do like James Johnson, frontman of Baltimore’s The Wilderness, take one vocal style (in this case, a John Lydon-like “chant”) and let your lungs expel the sound with every ounce of energy you have.
Johnson may not sing, croon or even whine. His Rotten-esque sing-speak is not only convincing, it seems to fit perfectly with the band’s music, a fantastic blend of 4AD sheen with early ’80s post-punk edge. Bands like Joy Division, The Teardrop Explodes and, of course, Public Image Limited come to mind, as do more recent interpreters like British Sea Power and Interpol. The thing that seems to separate The Wilderness from similar-sounding new-gazers is that they sound huge. Their drums could make entire buildings collapse. Their chorus-laden guitar could echo throughout canyons. It’s a sound to behold, to paraphrase Devendra Banhart.
Sometimes, The Wilderness sounds triumphant and commanding, as on opener “Marginal Over,” with an ocean of sound crashing through the speakers under Johnson’s erratic yawp. Yet, on other tracks, like “Arkless,” the band takes a decidedly darker approach, falling more in line with the more sinister post-punk acts of yore. Over a creeping, dingy bassline, Johnson shouts, with almost desperate intensity, “sub-ject/ dis-dis-may-may/ ob-ject/ dis-dis-may-may.”
The middle of the record, mainly “End of Freedom,” the eight-minute epic “Post Plethoric Rhetoric” and the nearly U2-like “Fly Farther to See,” the music goes into more atmospheric shoegazer sounds, all the while Johnson’s voice remains powerful, yet detached. The ringing guitar chords and assembly line drums in “Say Can You See” make it an oddly paradoxical track, though a fine closer, though the actual final song is “Mirrored Palm,” a sparse, instrumental piano track. Even with this seemingly unrelated (though cool-sounding) song tacked on to the end, the album’s cycle seems natural and complete.
Musically, The Wilderness is near perfect, a tight, yet open-ended musical vessel for interesting ideas to flow in and out. Each song is a fine specimen on its own, though the album does seem to work best as a whole. And even in their darkest moments, with Johnson spouting nearly unintelligible verse, there is a sense of humor lurking underneath. In fact, Johnson’s lyrics in “It’s All The Same” are more or less about, well, themselves. This is something wild, indeed, and God help us if it should ever be tamed.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.