Led by Tortoise bassist extraordinaire Doug McCombs, Chicago post-rock outfit Brokeback has visited Black Rock's desert-friendly palette before. But the tracks that referenced Ennio Morricone's classic Spaghetti Western on Brokeback's previous record, the decade-old Looks at the Bird, contrasted minimalist twang-guitar against bowed and plucked basslines, experimental percussion bits, occasional voice and trumpet parts and incidental synth noise. The record sounded like Stereolab and the Chicago Underground — members of both chipped in — poolside in Palm Springs; the dangerous desert was out there, but the pool and the girls were much closer.
Black Rock is vastly grander in scale and, at times, bleaker. This time Brokeback approaches similar harmonic content from a guitar-centric direction, tapping into the strengths of a quartet that includes members of Tight Phantomz, Head of Skulls! and the Zincs. Together they carefully craft Black Rock's eight instrumentals around evocative five- or seven-note melody-riffs, stacking up reverb and judicious overdrive pedal parts that overlap, intertwine and circle each other over shuffling beats and through enormous crescendos. In the process, the music conjures lonely, sun-baked moonscapes ("Who Is Bozo Texino?") or fields of blooming cacti (the Friends of Dean Martinez-like opener "Will Be Arriving" does both). There's also ominous Sergio Leone showdowns ("The Wire, The Rag and the Payoff"), a brief pampas tango ("Tonight at Ten"), and an instructional guide in guitar dynamics in epic 10-minute closer "Colossus of Roads."
Strangely, the weak link is "Gold!," whose plodding pace never really suggests precious metal discovery or the madness that can haunt its search. That aside, the album delivers stunning moments of beauty throughout, especially for anyone in love with the dynamics of single-coil electric guitars and warm tube amps. The great thing about post-rock guitar — especially compared to "check out my chops" noodling — is that, done well, it reverses the spotlight back onto the song, not the player. And song appreciation is what you walk away with from Black Rock, time and time again.