he Wilderness create music the way I imagine the last people on earth would make use of air. There’s a gasp, and a struggle, and then a realization at just how much space there is when there’s nobody there to fill it. They enjoy infusing the gaps with their sound. They wait until the final moment to exhale and even longer to inhale, allowing silence to spill into the silent gaps between notes, beats, and guitar fills.
A four-piece formed in Baltimore in 2001 that has worked since then on this debut full-length, the Wilderness has already been stamped-for-approval with labored references that don’t hold much weight. Sure, lead singer James Johnson chants foul like Metal Box-era John Lydon, but where PiL was a back-alley rhythmic force, summoned to the grind by hairy, toothless dub lines and an anarchist’s howl, the Wilderness create the sort of airy, weightless anthems that would make the Walkmen proud. Lydon grunted against the albatross he saw slung around our (and his own) necks, while Johnson and the Wilderness revel in the balm against the savagery. If PiL was a founding force for what would eventually become post-punk, the Wilderness seem content to glide along the ethereal guitarscapes of post-rock and instrumental groups like Explosions in the Sky and GY!BE.
Chiming guitars and steady, tribal drums dominate their songs instrumentally, but Johnson’s voice is perhaps their most poignant play. Choked and insensate, he is a man new to language. Not just to English, but to the syntax and crystalline formation of anything you could put into words. He manages through grunts and front-man moans, slurring his lyrics with a garbage poignancy that forms sense out of sensation.
Take the opener, “Marginal Over.” As the band lets the dueling guitars heat up, Johnson barks like a flea market pitchman, bargaining with wary shoppers for humanism and attention. A sense of distance and proportion keep the parts from becoming too tangled. Step right up, one and all, he seems to say, and I’ll show you the creases in my hand and the grime in my teeth. But, I remind you of this, I have nothing to sell really. It’s all in the pitch. Follower “Arkless” trades in “Marginal”’s ethereal glow for gas-fire, laying out what can only be described as a ritual sacrifice. You feel the hooded gain their place and the priest break his voice in Johnson’s repeated refrains, “calm calm down down to the the our our way of thinking calm calm down down.”
Much like the first-half of the record, “Fly Futher to See” builds into a skyscraped anthem. The ascendant guitar lines and joyous Sigur Ros-like structures simmer around the edges of Johnson’s voice, here in prime form, as the band builds a song just as ideal for journey as for sleep. Perhaps a mesmeric blend of the two.
Though The Wilderness is filled with stunning songs, by album’s end, they tend to meld together. Their uniformity is their greatest fault, though admittedly one that can be overlooked during its best moments. From “It’s All the Same” through “Post Plethoric Rhetoric,” the steady boxed rhythms and ringing guitars collapse into a single, jelly-bellied middle, and pull you out of the gains set forth from the start. But these are mild complaints. If you’re pulling the long-distance haul this summer, play this record to swell the formless miles with grace and plunder. Then, obviously, stop at Whitey’s and spoil it all in a bevy of sliders and soggy fries.