WILDERNESS with PARTS & LABOUR and the TWO KOREAS at El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Saturday (April 15). $10. 416-777-1777. Rating: NNNNN
Depending on who you believe, Baltimore-based murk-rock quartet Wilderness were born anywhere from half a decade ago in the Maryland town they (and John Waters) now call home, or up to 11 years ago through a series of serendipitous connections while the transient members were wandering aimlessly through the continental U.S.
Some reports claim their songs are post-punk indictments of the World Bank, the IMF and other monoliths of globalization. Others insist Wilderness deliver sublime sermons on the hyperreal.
For their part, the four fairly low-key fellas in Wilderness have done little to confirm or deny any media-skewed allegations surrounding their band's intent or origins. Even strategic Googling turns up a mere handful of (generally glowing) reviews and even fewer actual interviews with the band.
According to soft-spoken guitarist Colin McCann, that enigmatic shroud stems from a particular kind of self-protective stubbornness - the same reason it took him and his bandmates until 2005 to release their first proper recording and embark on their first tour beyond Baltimore.
"The whole group has been very wary of rock 'n' roll as a medium and a marketplace," he sighs. "It's not solely about music and sharing; it's about competition, mind control and partying - pretty much the same things everything else is about in our culture."
You have to wonder whether Wilderness appreciated the raves their self-titled debut received from arbiters of cool like Pitchfork and Uncut, considering that, for a band who'd never played for folks outside of their hometown, the buzz was crucial in boosting their profile.
"Nah, [buzz] is all about arbitrary rules around whom it's OK to be enamoured of, whom it's OK to bow down to. It's completely unhealthy, and the one thing it doesn't serve is music."
In Wilderness's case, that music is an intricate web of snaky bass lines and thick, viscous textures built up from heavy reverb, jittery cymbal-laced percussion and sudden ringing guitar slashes. On their sophomore disc, Vessel States (Jagjaguwar), which came out April 11, they play with the crashing, mercurial dynamics of emotional hardcore á la Fugazi or Nation of Ulysses, but McCann's keening, elastic guitar work and frontman James Johnson's plaintive bellow add shades of post-punk urgency.
Johnson's halting, desperate delivery of the fragmentary lyrics makes it easier to understand why many listeners read large-scale political critiques into Wilderness's work, though McCann still seems bemused.
"People can glean what they want from the lyrics, but we're not trying to put out a clear message about the ills of capitalist society," he begins. "Sure, look around and all those things are painfully obvious everywhere, but it's not an intentional thing."
The way McCann tells his condensed version of the band mythology, all four Wilderness kingpins - including his high school friend, drummer Brian Gossman - were constant travellers, "not so much about the steady jobs," who came together in odd ways and played music over the course of a decade. Johnson finally moved to Baltimore in the late 90s, and the three other members gradually followed. They've now lived there, off and on, for about nine years.
"It's a really beautiful, violent city," offers McCann, who thinks John Waters's aesthetic "embraces the city's beauty and alternate reality," even though he's never seen the director's films. "It has a lot of weird character, and at the time we moved here it was dirt cheap and so easy to find big open spaces to make music or art.
"As for a so-called "community,'" he continues, "when we arrived it was pretty nonexistent. We have friends, but beyond that there was nothing. I mean, there's always been amazing art and music that ebbs and flows in Baltimore, but in terms of how we navigated it, we had no sense of being part of a larger whole.
"The only connection was to the actual city around us, which probably influences us the same ways it influences other artists who live here."