Wilderness, Vessel States

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

The second record from Baltimore avant-rock group Wilderness has no bottom and no sides — songs pool out endlessly, big as the galaxy and just as overwhelming. The obvious sonic reference point for Vessel States is PiL, but where that group distilled contempt until it started to boil over, Wilderness is more interested in using their reels of silvery guitar to convey helplessness and desperation. There's a hard current of sadness coursing beneath the songs, a resigned acknowledgement of damage that can't be reversed or undone. The songs are chalked-up with signals of recent disasters — ringing alarms and blood-stained walls — and vocalist James Johnson acts the part of the traumatized narrator, his basement-level bellow getting more frantic as the record progresses. There's a kind of zero-gravity quality to the music, and against the backdrop of endlessly pealing guitars Johnson sounds like a man howling in horror as he hurtles through space.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space.

This is probably not an accident; most of Vessel States seems consumed with the idea of life lived inside a crushing existential vacuum. Johnson's verse is blank and absurd, following awful prophecies ("Death verses entertain me") with couplets that sound grave-robbed from The Exquisite Corpse, giving equal weight to both and, consequently, calling into question the value of either. This would get awfully heady awfully fast if the music wasn't so ornate. Songs like "Emergency" and "Fever Pitch" sound like they're bouncing off the domed ceiling of a planetarium, so vast and brilliant are the guitars.

The record builds to a climax with the merciless churn of "Gravity Bent Light." The song is a tense, grinding lament built around a simple sobbing guitar melody and Johnson's throat-straining omens. It gets stormier as it grinds on, cresting in a spectacular eruption of rhythm and sound. If Wilderness were truly pessimists the program would have ended there, in a tumult of pounding and shrieking. Instead, Vessel States closes with the golden clang of "Monumental." Over a single revolving major chord, Johnson yells "It's all there!/ It's all here!" It's the sound of a man who'd given up on going on suddenly coming to realize that there might be some life in the cold, endless universe after all.