Monday, March 5, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #200 - Mountain - Climbing

Let’s talk about hard rock and heavy metal. Exactly where and when it started is a subject of much debate, and there is probably not a real definitive answer. In England, most indications seem to point pretty clearly to Cream, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath as the forefathers, but here in the U.S. of A things aren’t quite as clear. In the late 60’s The Stooges, MC5 and especially Blue Cheer made some critical first steps, but the more recognized conventions of heavy music started to come into focus around 1969 and 70 when two bands in particular started to forge the raw materials into something now very familiar. From Texas, Z.Z. Top emphasized a blues-based form of the guitar fronted trio. Billy Gibbons’ guitar style and tone would help define the southern strain of hard rock until this day. From the stage at Woodstock though, came an East Coast band whose incendiary, guitar-driven sound mixed with a headier style of songwriting to make Mountain a potential peer to the best of the English bands.

Although lead vocalist and certified guitar monster Leslie West had already released a solo album entitled Mountain in 1969, the album Climbing (released in 1970) was the first album with the band itself (now featuring well-known producer Felix Pappalardi on bass and double bass drum pioneer Corky Laing on very muscular drums) now going under the name Mountain. With Pappalardi (and then-wife, later murderer) Gail Collins’ sophisticated songwriting and experienced and intelligent production, Mountain quickly transcends the competition to offer one of the great hard rock albums of all time.

Opening with a bona fide anthem, “Mississippi Queen” is THE song about which the much discussed penchant for cowbell in hard rock comes from. No song has used it better (except maybe “Low Rider"by War), and combined it with the almost Zeppelin-esque crunch of a classic lead guitar riff. “Mississippi Queen” really doesn’t need a lot of discussion because of its unquestioned status as a classic of all rock. Used effectively in movies and T.V. advertising, it has passed beyond the mortal sphere. And that would be that, except for the fact that is followed up by a far more ambitious and equally iconic song by Cream bassist Jack Bruce. “Theme For An Imaginary Western” is another stone classic with mysterious lyrics, a great arrangement enhanced dramatically by Steve Knight’s able Hammond organ work and, of course, thunderous guitar work and mournful vocals by West. Again, this song is followed by another heavy classic. Leslie West unleashes a master class of heavy guitar and really exercises his unique vocal howl, which would be copied by virtually every metal singer in decades to come. “Never In My Life” would fit in on records coming out now - it does not feel dated yet it is years ahead of its time. Side 1 of the original LP closes out and side 2 opens with songs that would have fit beautifully on a Traffic or Procol Harum album. “Silver Paper” and the gorgeous Woodstock memory “For Yasgur's Farm” are both smart, melodic songs benefitting much from Pappalardi’s experience producing Cream (among others) to allow him to create songs that transcend any genre. “To My Friend” finds West proving his acoustic chops ala Zeppelin’s “White Summer.” The album remains strong to the end, with “The Laird” especially offering some prime navel-gazing opportunity. Yes, Mountain does fit the bill as proto-metal based largely on West’s guitar work and shrieking vocals, but no, they were no one trick pony. Climbing ticks many other boxes. Like their British counterparts, Mountain were reaching for the stars.

In the end, perhaps it is the fact that Climbing satisfies the specifics of so many genres - hard rock, soft rock, psych, pop - and even produced a stadium-rock anthem, which makes it such an enduring album to my ears. The totally boss image on the back cover of Felix Pappalardi, the more experienced music legend, giving Leslie West a congratulatory hand slap really says it all: job well done!

-         Paul Epstein

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