Religion, death, darkness and the natural will to survive are all key themes in The Cold Stares’ new album Mountain, but to understand the lyrical pining of front man Chris Tapp we have to look a lot closer than just the enigmatic words he imparts to us in songs like “Under His Command,” “Wade In The Darkness,” “Child of God,” “The Plan” and “Sleeping With Lions.” In just the five aforementioned tracks, we’re met with a plethora of cerebrally conceived rock tones that normally wouldn’t mesh together, but under the umbrella created by our singer’s undyingly relatable aching, they seem to play off of each other seamlessly. The obstinate swing of “Stickemup” radiates a certain awkwardness normally associated with outsider folk music, but when performed through the fat-bottomed amplifiers of The Cold Stares it takes on an entirely different shape altogether. As much as Tapp’s verses burn their rhymes into our brains, they are inarguably defined by the muscular nuances of the music playing behind them. Mountain is not a mainstream rock record – in fact, I wouldn’t even call it an alternative album at all. This is The Cold Stares’ bluesy sound as introduced to us in their Head Bent LP at its most uncaged and untamable. The guitars – even the acoustic ones – are loud, and Brian Mullins’ drumming is tighter than ever in what is arguably their most comprehensively designed release to date.
The urgency of the music in a track like “Sleeping With Lions” or the completely different “The River” isn’t created out of a tempo or even the size of the band’s sound. It’s created exclusively by the execution of Chris Tapp, who stretches his creative legs in this record and gives off a very relaxed vibe from beginning to end. Brian Mullins is the counterbalance; his percussion is unforgivingly disciplined, especially in heavier tracks like “Gone Not Dead” and the opening salvo “The Great Unknown.” He takes the backseat a couple of times for Tapp’s articulate acoustic outbursts, but more than makes up for his absence in wildly imaginative songs like the poppy “Friend of Mine.”
I found that even when I played Mountain on shuffle, the mix on all of the songs consistently remains overwhelmingly full of richly textured bass that washes over the band like a warm, thick blanket. “Under His Command” wouldn’t have been any brighter if it were delivered to us through a different filtration than “Two Keys and a Good Book” is, but the air-tight production it receives on this album certainly gives it a succulent boost. Similarly, the harmony between Tapp and his guitar in “Killing Machine” is so glaring that I feel like it would have been relatively inaccessible if it were given a dissimilar varnish than the one it was here. There’s nothing deliberately pop-friendly about Mountain, but I think that its sprawling aesthetical concept and respectable lack of polish is a big part of its charm. The Cold Stares may have flirted with the idea of blending together their pastoral and more abrasive influences with Head Bent, but this album is much more representative of their true identity as a band. Mountain is assaultive, unapologetic and surprisingly emotional – but more than anything else, it’s an unadulterated look at The Cold Stares for who they really are.