I saw Wilderness Wednesday night at Cake Shop on the first stop of their US tour, and I have to say I’ve never met a band with such an appropriate name. Playing together in one form or another since 1997, Wilderness is a post-punk experimental rock band. Their incredibly dreary sound seems to fit the apocalyptic feeling that’s been seeping into our lives since the words “sub-prime mortgage crisis” were first uttered back in ’07. Part-time art rockers (they worked with artist Charles Long to produce a piece for the recent Whitney Biennial), this band has been channeling the “end-of-unsustainable-American-capitalist-lifestyles” vibe long before our happy, Clinton-era 1990s selves foresaw what was coming. The current state of affairs makes their haunting tunes all the more applicable and simultaneously uncomfortable – it truly felt like the band was leading us through a wilderness, and one that I didn’t necessarily want to be led through.
From the moment Wilderness took the stage, it was difficult to define them. The band has a quality of feeling very plain – like boiled plain chicken you eat when you’re on a really serious diet. It’s the most basic dish you could possibly eat; there’s nothing disguising the meat and giving it classy or trashy connotations. It’s not fried, it’s not grilled, it’s not seared with a ginger-soy vinaigrette. Wilderness are not hipsters, they’re not showmen, they’re not rockers – the band just plays music that they really, really care about. Frontman James Johnson exemplifies what works about this band’s straight-forward approach. Though I’ve read in older reviews that he puts on quite a show interacting with the audience, the Johnson I saw delivered raw, powerful vocals and only moved along to the music as he saw fit. It didn’t seem like he was putting on a show. It did seem like he was actually feeling the music and moving how it moved him (and he was still entertaining to watch). Isn’t that what we hope live music is in its purist form?
Johnson’s voice is also what saves the band from languishing in derivative musical obscurity, merely left reaching for the likes of Fugazi guitar sounds or even the experimental noise-scapes of some Mogwai-type bands. His voice is so bleak, depressing, and full of sadness that it brings what would otherwise be a lackluster post-punk noise project some cohesion and interest. The timbre of his voice is also surprising. It has a guttural quality that clashes nicely with often-bright guitar riffs. And while you can’t make out the lyrics, it’s clear that they’re about weighty topics. Their myspace page even boldly claims that one main theme of the band is “living through the end of capitalism.” Somehow, this message comes through the experimental sounds loud and clear.
Maybe it’s this bleakness about America that translates through Johnson’s vocals that ultimately defined my experience with Wilderness at Cake Shop. While I appreciated the band for what they were giving the audience, I didn’t necessarily enjoy it. There were incredibly beautiful moments, but the vague discomfort of standing in the basement venue did not make these moments worth the payoff. I’d almost like to see what they could do in a more traditional song-writing mode. The band was at their best when they weren’t lolling in guitar/bass riffs for several minutes. When Johnson’s vocals carried the swirling walls of sound to their peak, the result was nothing short of gorgeous. The highest point of the night was the last song, “Strand The Test Of Time” off of their new album (k)no(w)here. All parts seemed to work in sync as Johnson’s despondent cries of “here comes the new-law merchants” were one of the closest things we got to a chorus all evening. Their experimental sound definitely delivers a message, but I was left wondering if a band with such a clear message wouldn’t do better delivering it in a slightly more conventional, clear-cut form.
Nov 22 2008 at Floristree in Baltimore, MD
Nov 23 2008 at Brillobox w/ San Serac in Pittsburgh, PA
Nov 24 2008 at Beachland Tavern w/ San Serac in Cleveland, OH
Nov 25 2008 at Schuba’s in Chicago, IL
Nov 26 2008 at Jakes Nightclub w/ Tammar, San Sera in Bloomington, IN
Nov 29 2008 at Harvest Records w/ San Serac in Asheville, NC
Nov 30 2008 at The Earl w/ San Serac & Sleep Creep in Atlanta, GA
Dec 1 2008 at The Bottletree w/ San Serac in Birmingham, AL
Dec 3 2008 at The Mink w/ San Serac in Houston, TX
Dec 4 2008 at Emo’s w/ San Serac in Austin, TX
Dec 6 2008 at Solar Culture in Tuscon, AZ
Dec 7 2008 at Modified in Phoenix, AZ
Dec 8 2008 at The Casbah in San Diego, CA
Dec 9 2008 at The Echo in Los Angeles, CA
Dec 10 2008 at Crepe Place in Santa Cruz, CA
Dec 11 2008 at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, CA
Dec 12 2008 at The Lil’ Red in Arcata, CA
Dec 15 2008 at Rotture in Portland, OR