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Songs From Black Mountain

Ex-alternative rockers grow older, obscurer

After ending his decade-long spiritual search with 2003's Birds Of Pray, Live leader Ed Kowalczyk asks "Where do we go from here?" on a track of the same name from Live's seventh album, Songs From Black Mountain. It's a good question.

In the post-grunge recess of the mid-90s, Live emerged from humble beginnings in York, Pennsylvania and climbed its way to the top of the modern rock charts with its landmark, multi-platinum second album, Throwing Copper. Since then, Live's presence gradually faded from the charts and minds of most rock fans, never again achieving the same kind of success. Maybe it was the dark exploration of Eastern themes in follow-up Secret Samadhi or the rap-tronic experimentation in 2001's V. Whatever the reason, most people had forgotten about Live in the new millennium, even though the group has remained one of the few longstanding bands to deliver some of the most consistently accessible rock records.

When Birds Of Pray landed three years ago, something was different. With shorter, watered-down songs, the music lacked a punch that it had previously packed. Live had grown smaller, seemingly without shame. And although the band claimed that Birds was a new beginning, it wasn't the best start to a new era. More than anything, the album was a downswing that felt like a quick exercise in fulfilling contractual obligations with the record company.

Things don't get any better on Songs From Black Mountain. This second helping of Live lite serves softer songs that have hooks but end before any kind of deeper exploration ever begins. Live seems to have lost its patience in fully developing its musical ideas, or thinks that its remaining fans have lost theirs. The band also seems content with repeating the same song structure throughout, as every track follows the same verse-chorus-verse-solo-bridge-chorus pattern before reaching the four-minute mark. Musically, the most that Songs does is demonstrate how far the band has lost its edge and fallen from Throwing Copper's brilliant blend of aggressive, cathartic power.

Songs' shallowness can be attributed to Kowalczyk's newfound peace from his religious quest. His faith in God (and other gods) is something positive; its effect on Live is not. Without an inner struggle or personal demons to face, Live feels tame and emasculated. And although spirituality has always dominated Kowalczyk's songwriting, he has never been so nauseatingly preachy and ripe with banalities, wearing his heart on his robe and singing "Kumbaya" long after the choir has gone home. As such, Songs' lyrical content can be summed up with the canon of Live clichés that Kowalczyk references ad nauseam: love (18), spirituality (25), nature (44), and the sacred feminine (13). So much so that these themed titles could well cross over into the contemporary Christian market: "The River", "Love Shines (A Song For My Daughters About God)", and "You Are Not Alone". Some songs wouldn't suffer if Kowalczyk's fervor didn't come off as semi-silly ("You are not alone/No, child!") or if he didn't taint would-be romantic lyrics with cringe-worthy figures of speech ("Sofia, I need ya/Like a junkie needs a vein").

It's clear that present-day Live is Kowalczyk's show, and you can't help but wonder if his bandmates are at all opposed to the recent direction they've taken, or if they're fine with following their shepherd. It's disappointing to see Live retreat further into its musical corner, unable to recapture the self-aggrandizing spirit and sweeping musical statements it made in its mid-90s heyday. This isn't just the sound of a band that's grown up, but also one that's grown complacent.

Where do they go from here? The only way is up.

-Ken Devine

Standout Tracks: "Wings", "All I Need"

Track Listing:
1. The River
2. Mystery
3. Get Ready
4. Show
5. Wings
6. Sofia
7. Love Shines (A Song for My Daughters About God)
8. Where Do We Go from Here?
9. Home
10. All I Need
11. You Are Not Alone
12. Night of Nights

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