Like other fine bands such as Thin Lizzy, Procol Harum, Free, and Mott The Hoople, Mountain are primarily remembered today for a single classic song that completely, and quite unfairly, overshadows the rest of their output. For fans of melodic hard rock, however, it would be a big mistake not to dig deeper than hearing "Mississippi Queen," which starts off this terrific album, on which hefty lead guitarist-singer Leslie West (ex-Vagrants) joined forces with bassist-singer-pianist Felix Pappalardi (previously best-known for producing Cream where his contributions were essential). Actually, they had collaborated on West's prior solo album, ironically titled Mountain, but this is the first proper Mountain album, on which they were also joined by powerhouse drummer Corky Laing and organist Steve Knight (also mellotron and handbells). Back to "Mississippi Queen," which of course starts with its famous cowbell introduction but is best known for West's classic, iconic riffs; West's thick, dirty, distorted, vibrato-laden guitar tone is obviously influenced by Eric Clapton's work with Cream, where he only had arguably the greatest guitar tone ever. For his part, whereas West's voice sounds like a tough he-man biker dude, Pappalardi's more sensitive voice sounds a lot like Jack Bruce (small wonder then that the band was often unflatteringly compared to Cream). Fittingly, the band covers Bruce's "Theme For An Imaginary Western," and for my money this soulful version, an epic power ballad that's arguably their second best song ever (you can argue that Mountain never topped their first two tracks, though they certainly had some game attempts), blows away the Bruce original, with its swirling organ, cinematic sense of majesty, and West's soaring, searing lead guitar solos. The rest of the album features an impressive mix of great ("Never In My Life") or good ("Sittin' On A Rainbow") straightforward hard rock, as well as an acoustic guitar showcase ("To My Friend") and a pretty medieval folk ballad ("The Laird") with fluid, liquid-like guitar solos. Rounding out the set list (which I'm describing out of order), "Silver Paper" delivers hippy hard rock with wailing guitars and bright keyboards, while "For Yasgur's Farm" and "Boys In The Band" are alternately mellow (trippy) and explosive, as the band does the whole light-to-dark juxtapositioning quite well throughout the album. Sure, you could argue that the band are overly generic (West's fault) or too '60-styled trippy at times (Pappalardi's fault), the latter of which gives the album a dated feel at times, and you could also argue that the band is overly imitative of Cream. I wouldn't disagree with any of that, but I'd also argue that the band is consistently heavier than Cream ever was, that this album is as consistently good (if not as groundbreaking) as anything that Cream ever did, and that Mountain were extremely talented performers in their own right. Simply put, Climbing! is a minor hard rock classic that contains far more than merely "Mississippi Queen," probably the band's greatest single moment but also their albatross.
Nantucket Sleighride (Columbia ‘71) Rating: A-
This follow-up album is almost as great as Climbing! but I rate it slightly lower because there are more keyboards and less rocking out on the whole. Still, I consider this album to be another minor hard rock classic, as it contains several outstanding tracks and precious little filler. Perhaps some of West’s contributions (“You Can’t Get Away,” “The Animal Trainer and the Toad,” “The Great Train Robbery”) are a tad generic but they’re still good, the former delivering sorta funky hard rock with stuttering riffs, the middle one with the silly Cream-like title a fun rollicking little boogie, and the latter longer effort an enjoyably greasy slide guitar showcase. Aside from the outstanding opener “Don’t Look Around,” which delivers melodic, explosive hard rock, most of the best songs here belong to Felix (Laing also co-writes three songs), none more so than the monumental title track, which gives “Mississippi Queen” and “Imaginary Western” a serious run for their money as the best Mountain song. For one thing, Laing’s hard charging drumming on this track is flat-out phenomenal, it has the bands patented mellow and folksy yet psychedelic verses that lead into pummeling hard rock sections, and it’s just a fantastic song on which every member of the band is a standout (p.s. the true story that inspired this song, subtitled “To Owen Coffin,” is fascinating if horrific as well). I’m also partial to “Tired Angels (to J.M.H.)” (dedicated to James Marshall a.k.a. Jimi Hendrix) due to its hooky riffs, “My Lady” is another majestic power ballad whose melodic guitar soloing and pounding drums stand out (its dinky carnival-esque keyboards I’m less fond of, however), while “Travellin’ in the Dark (to E.M.P.)” (dedicated to Felix’s mother) is another great track with more moody yet rocking music that’s highlighted by more melodic wailing guitars and more pounding drums. OK, Mountain weren’t the most versatile band around, but they were very good at what they did, I only wish they had done what they did a little longer. Unfortunately, though fans of these albums should also check out the half-live Flowers Of Evil (the studio side is very good) and the all-live The Road Goes Ever On, not to mention the aforementioned West-Pappalardi collaboration called Mountain, Mountain never subsequently scaled the consistent peaks attained on these two albums (sorry couldn’t resist the mountain reference). Pappalardi’s drug dependencies were exacerbated by his loss of hearing in the early ‘70s, and his wife Gail Collins (who co-wrote many of the band’s songs and designed their album covers) was ten times worse than Yoko Ono and was a big part of the band disharmony; in 1983 she shot and killed Pappalardi in a “criminally negligent homicide” that most suspect was actually murder.
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