For Speck Mountain’s first album since 2009, founding members Marie-Claire Balabanian and Karl Briedrick have been on the recruitment trail. Former Chin Up Chin Up drummer Chris Dye and former pentacostal church organist Linda Malonis have been added to the Chicago-based outfit in the hope that they can add some new dynamics to a formula that has already seen them produce a couple of LPs. One would expect these new additions would make for something bold, exciting and rejuvenating but Badwater doesn’t quite follow this script.
Often downbeat and prone to a fair amount of meandering, this is an album that has an extremely mellow core, as best exhibited by Slow So Long, five-and-a-half minutes of sheer unadulterated and atmospheric moodiness. The pace never really picks up past a gentle crawl and there are lengthy periods of echoey and spacey guitar notes. That’s not to forget some of the fretboard freestyling displayed throughout; some melodies and solos could go on for half an hour if they wanted to. It’s a wonder that they managed to condense it all to 38 minutes.
However, the brevity and strong musicianship doesn’t disguise the fact that Badwater sounds rather cold. Amidst all the soft organ hums, the precise basslines and desert-rock guitars, it’s difficult to find much emotion in the songwriting to latch onto as a way into the album and this wouldn’t be a problem if the sound was memorable. Sadly, for the most part, Speck Mountain are unable to conjure up much magic. These are jams that float around for a while without much in the way of a strong hook. They would bnefit from an injection of energy to get the attention of the listener.
Despite the passive nature of their aesthetic, and the fact that their stubborn refusal to break a limb and go gung-ho gets weary, there are a handful of songs that stand out. The two bookends do their job rather well; Caught Up is a thumping opener whilst Watch The Storm subtly puts you in its spell without you even knowing. The rat-a-tat snares alongside Balabanian’s seductive vocals keep its momentum going strong for nearly five minutes before fizzling away via its own guitar noodling.
Speck Mountain certainly have it in them to create swirling, captivating epics. Whilst there is a lot to appreciate about Badwater – the band are tight and there’s a healthy amount of reverb – it’s not as ferocious or striking as it should be, doesn’t have anything much of note to say and, in consequence, is found wanting somewhat for substance. It’s a difficult one to love; most of these songs will drift out of your brain almost as soon as they enter.