You don’t need a lot of crazy, overindulgent solos to make a good guitar record in 2018, and The Cold Stares’ Chris Tapp proves as much in the band’s new album Mountain. The record’s opening set includes the stop-start alternative rocker “The Great Unknown,” the swinging blues tune “Friend of Mine” and the organic “Under His Command,” which together set the table for what we can expect in the dozen tracks that follow by showing off the three pillars of The Cold Stares’ guitar-oriented sound. “The Great Unknown” represents the trudging power chord rock that we were introduced to in their last record Head Bent; “Friend of Mine” offers us a taste of their more relaxed, radio-friendly side in the form of a patient guitar lick; and “Under His Command” serves as a sampling of their uniquely contrasting acoustic songs that leave a trail of hostile energy in their wake.
Mountain is structured in three song suites that steamroll over our senses without a second thought; “Stickemup,” rises from the ashes of “Under His Command” and bleeds right into “Gone Not Dead” and the bulging “Wade In The Darkness,” which pristinely reverberates like a lonely voice bouncing off of huge canyon walls. Drummer Brian Mullins doesn’t command every song with his calculated arrangements, but the songs that he does make a big impact on (“Sleeping With Lions” and “Cold Black Water” particularly) are the best of the album. Tapp’s lyrics are a constant presence and tend to overshadow some of the more plaintive musical bits in tracks like “Child of God” or the correspondingly muted “The River,” and I actually think that his style of prose goes out of its way to be more creative and freewheeling than it has to be exclusively with this result in mind.
The Cold Stares are very good at taking a simple song and transforming it into a roots rocking firestorm, which is demonstrated perfectly in “The Plan.” The mix of this track is what takes it out of the pastureland and drops it into a crowded concert hall – every gilded nuance of Tapp’s heart-pumping blues guitar is highlighted with great detail, and Mullins’ drumming occasionally gets so overwhelming that it feels like his cymbals are going to come crashing through the invisible barrier between recorded music and tangible reality itself. The same can be said of the familiar melody we find in “Way Gets Dark,” which borrows heavily from the folk/blues of yesteryear but comes across as authentic and original thanks to The Cold Stares’ tailor-made equalization.
For a record that feels like it’s actually two LPs crammed into a single disc, there isn’t a spot of filler in Mountain to be skipped over, and if anything the more streamlined tracks make the progressive flow even more lucid and relatable to the listener. Obviously our attention is, more often than not, drawn to Tapp’s vicious guitar play on this record, which flirts with classic rock tonality but remains relatively contemporary courtesy of this sublimely textured mix. But to be frank, what probably affected me more than anything else here was the relationship between his verses and the riffs; the way they seem to reflect each other’s pain and longing for calm amidst all this musical chaos. In that senseMountain isn’t just more sonically mature than what The Cold Stares have produced in the past, it’s also more aesthetically evocative and creatively diverse.