BLACKFEATHER — At the Mountains of Madness (review)

BLACKFEATHER — At the Mountains of Madness album cover Album · 1971 · Proto-Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
3/5 ·
Conor Fynes
'At the Mountains of Madness' - Blackfeather (62/100)

Even if you're an ardent fan of heavy psych rock, chances are you haven't heard of Blackfeather. Considering they only put out a single complete album way back in '71 however, you can feel rest assured they haven't been a gaping hole in your musical knowledge 'til now. Blackfeather were essentially Australia's response to the British burst of fuzz-tinged psychedelic blues that saturated the progressive scene from 1970-71. This was a fairly integral stage in rock history; it opened the gates for progressive rock and heavy metal alike. If Blackfeather weren't the first Australian metal band, they were at least among the first. Their debut At the Mountains of Madness offers some material potentially worthy of that historical significance, but the album is otherwise marred by inconsistent songwriting and an execution that tempts being called half-baked.

To their credit, where a lot of the bands I've heard from their niche and era settled for tired 12 bar blues and a distortion box, Blackfeather give the impression that they aspired to take their sound to a more serious level. At the Mountains of Madness is rounded off with a fourteen minute suite ("The Rat"), and the album even came with a proper intro track-- a common thing today, not so much back then. Even two of the regular songs in the middle are listed as parts one and two of one another. At least in concept, it sounds as if Blackfeather were trying to take a loud, often simple kind of music to a higher artistic level. Couldn't the same be said of most of the prog rock bands we hold near and dear today?

The problem with At the Mountains of Madness, isn't its intent, but its execution. The introduction sounds awkward. I was expecting some kind of Lovecraftian debauchery. What I got was a spoken word entrance of a man receiving an apple from a questionable stranger and finding himself in a psychedelic realm. Again, this probably sounds good in concept, but Blackfeather don't really convince me. The forced vocals sound like frontman Neal Johns is trying too hard to sound like the host of a carnival. "The Rat" was a far greater disappointment. I'd generally expect an 'epic' to be the best track of the album it's a part of, but it comes off sounding like a weak Black Sabbath cut with mindless noodling to fill out the time.

As a progressive rock album, At the Mountains of Madness was a failed experiment. Luckily, the four relatively conventional hard rock tracks in the middle are much better. "On This Day That I Die" is a hard rock ballad that serves as a much better showcase for Neale Johns' vocals than the intro before it. "Long Legged Lovely" might have been a great radio-worthy single, but Blackfeather padded it with more unnecessary instrumentation. "Mango's Theme" isn't so much a theme as an exotic-tinged instrumental, and they do it well. I've spoken of these tracks out of order, specifically because I wanted to save the last mention for "Seasons of Change". For an album that seems to balance out its excellence with mediocrity wherever possible, I'm amazed that they could have penned one of the strongest rock ballads I've heard in ages. "Seasons of Change" offers beautiful vocals and string arrangement, and a simple, yet effective song structure. If I'll remember Blackfeather for anything, it won't be their failure in handling longform composition, but the magic they conjured with this song. The seamless way it flows into "Mango's Theme" is just a bonus.

Blackfeather would follow up this album the following year with Boppin' the Blues, but that was just a live performance of standard boogie tunes, and, for better or worse, has sweet fuck all to what they were doing on At the Mountains of Madness. According to RateYourMusic, Blackfeather wouldn't officially disband until 1983, although you wouldn't guess it from their discography. Although they put out a live album and a few singles, and have been featured on plenty of Aussie rock compilations in the time since, I'll assume it's safe to say At the Mountains of Madness is the only significant thing Blackfeather ever did. The album is flawed enough to have me doubt whether they could have ever really made it big, but there is quality here amidst the pedestrian and the puzzling. Hell, if anything, just check it out for "Seasons of Change". If 1971's blues-tinged heavy psych scene ever spawned a would-be one-hit wonder, these guys would be it.
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