Hayden Thorpe is Antony Hegarty but beneath him, in place of Nico Muhly’s strings or a tender piano figure, are only chilly synths and caustic, brutal drums.
There are two distinct musical strands to Wild Beasts’ more exploratory recent work, which are combined to dizzying effect: the first is characterised by jaw-dropping, bottomless bass tones (see the backbone of “Lion’s Share”, the serrated “Plaything”, and the foreboding back-end of “Burning”); the second is an emphasis on the ambient and the pastoral (the delicate plucking of “Loop The Loop” and “Deeper”, the bewildering middle section of “End Come Too Soon”). In the past, I’ve mentioned the relationship between this aesthetic and certain trends in electronic music; now, I want to project backwards twenty years or so, to examine the influence had upon the latter aesthetic by Talk Talk.
Like Wild Beasts, Talk Talk picked up more critical acclaim the further they retreated from more boisterous and unsubtle compositions. “It’s My Life” (1984) may have been a hit and spawned a standout final single for No Doubt, but it was once they started burning incense and candles while improvising with orchestras that they produced their best work. 1988’s Spirit of Eden is a fascinating and obtuse entry point to their métier, so let’s start there. Six leisurely paced, disarmingly complex songs which stretch to forty minutes, the album can seem frustrating at first. There might be a few bars you can whistle to, but these moments are fragmentary, and blow away in the slightest breeze before they can be repeated.
The arresting opener, “The Rainbow”, has about three false starts before it gets going for certain. First, we hear a lazily atmospheric passage—a few jazzy notes on a clarinet, some overtone-rich chords struck from an abrasive-sounding electric guitar, both set to an indistinct wash of strings. Then, nothingness. Some moments later, as if telegraphed in from the beginning of the universe, a few groanings and murmurings of primordial soup. And finally, over two minutes in, a wonderfully resonant guitar enters with what you might call the opening credits. The four minutes which follow are similarly abnormal: strange chords begin on piano and are then resolved on organ; Mark Hollis indulges in his trademark disturbed-narcoleptic vocals; occasionally, the clouds break to reveal fragments of the titular rainbow.
As strange an opener as “The Rainbow” is , if anything the songs which follow are even stranger. Few will forget the haunting chorus of “Eden”, in which Hollis unleashes a nauseous wail, which clashes gloriously with the maxed-out Hammond organ. Nor can one fail to notice the tropical percussion breakdown near the end of “Desire”, with its knowing incongruity. At every turn, Spirit of Eden surrounds you with warmth and weirdness: some songs peter out into drifting silence and then cut back in with a radically avantgarde coda or middle-eight; others dare you to question unusual textures and chord progressions. Halfway through “I Believe In You” there is a gloomy passage of filtered organ and jazzy drumming which, thinking laterally, has found its way into everything from Sigur Rós and Tortoise to Doves and Four Tet. It’s like the feeling you get when you listen to those early Can records: here is fundamentally original music which has gone on to inform and predict countless and disparate genres and trends.
At its most nuanced, Spirit of Eden also sets an extremely high bar for orchestral arrangements in post rock. Unique atonal collisions of horns are nowadays the speciality of Radiohead (see “Codex“, “How To Disappear Completely“), but they bear the indelible stamp of authority from a composition like “I Believe In You”. Looking to younger forces, These New Puritans’ grimly beautiful Hidden also bears a great debt to Spirit of Eden—consider the fragile, gently resolving woodwind at the end of “Fire-Power“, and the insistent funeral march of “5“.
And, finally, Talk Talk’s rich pageant is also present on Wild Beasts’ Smother: you can feel it most perceptibly in the leisurely paced “Loop The Loop”, but it also creeps in elsewhere too.It’s a great challenge to weave in microfragments of other people’s defining characteristics, but Wild Beasts pull it off time and time again. Like the luxuriantly stretched-out gurgling sample that runs beneath “Reach A Bit Further”, they take a little morsel of Talk Talk’s heritage and tuck it into the quantum folds of their finest work. There is no other way even a band as daring and non-canon as Wild Beasts would have the balls to do what they do in the centre of “End Come Too Soon”. When all semblance of songiness cuts out, to be replaced by an abstract sonic edifice of yearning and regret which builds to a pulverising akmē, the spirit of Eden is well and truly alive.
Wild Beasts — Shepherd’s Bush Empire — 23rd November 2011
Can you tell a lot about a band from the fans who show up at their concerts? For a Northern quartet who recently upped sticks for Trendsville, Dalston, and whose stock is on the up even as they trade in lithe funk for pastoral art rock, Wild Beasts‘ assembled crowd pretty much fits the bill. Young, well-dressed professionals interspersed with the occasional gaggle of lairy, not-quite-scary freshers. Yours truly, straight from the office of a third-sector organisation; two pints swiftly imbibed during the forgettable opening set from Braids. Snuggling couples lingering behind the bar, all-too aware of the lush romanticism at the heart of Wild Beasts’ recent offerings.
The band begin on an uncharacteristically sprightly note, all thought of Kate Bush and Talk Talk shoved temporarily to one side for the jaunty, swooping “Bed of Nails”. “O! Ophelia! I feel yer fall,” moan the sparring frontmen Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming—the Hamlet reference surely isn’t lost on such a hyper-literate crowd. The former deals in a seductive falsetto (halfway between Antony Hegarty and Kate Bush) while the latter shows off his bluff, Northern baritone (like a more sultry Guy Garvey). Against such distinctive vocalists whirr shadowy keys and delicately textured guitar-work. And, always, Chris Talbot’s intricate, polyrhythmic sticksmanship, colouring in the gaps with deft bongo fills.
From there, the set takes a more sensual turn, with a decent mix of new and older materials. The high drama of “We Still Got The Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues” is followed by the sparse, sub-bass-heavy “Albatross”, for which the frontmen face each other across hefty banks of keyboards, like lovers squaring up for a fight. Respite from the relentlessly pattering rhythms comes courtesy of the post-rock suite “Two Dancers”, its two constituent parts reversed in order and shuffled around. We’re also treated to the otherworldly “Loop The Loop” and the gentle, wafting “Deeper” (both from the recent album Smother), with its muted plucking and pinging synths. Even here, they can’t resist their love of earthier stuff, with cavernous bass tones lurking around the song’s middle section.
When the band gets round to playing the hits from their previous album, Two Dancers, the crowd raise their game. In a live setting, you kinda forget the gritty homoeroticism of “Hooting And Howling” and “All The King’s Men”, and end up bouncing along innocently enough to this scrunchy, steely brand of pop.
Then, in the encore, they plumb new depths, with every ounce of disco-noire potential extracted from “Lion’s Share” and distilled into a heady, intoxicating concoction. The bottomless bass pulses combine exquisitely with Thorpe’s plaintive piano and the additional thump of touring helper Katie Harkin on floor tom. As a final hurrah, we get the epic “End Come Too Soon”, that paen to all things premature, whose rousing first section soon tumbles into a rising fog of quasi-ambient noise, simultaneously recalling Oneohtrix Point Never and My Bloody Valentine. As this wall of sound approaches the unbearable, the band return to the stage, bringing back the original melody for a colossal and richly-deserved finale.
There is nothing earth-shattering about this performance; nothing to place it in my pantheon of live music. But it is a glorious display of a group at what seems like the peak of their prowess. On the basis of it, I hope their artistry continues to grow—even more bass! even more ambience!—pari passu with their popular appeal. There’s something extremely wholesome to finding unpretentious lads making pretentious-in-a-good way music, imbued with emotive storytelling and a very particular aesthetic. Do catch them before they end up in a concrete corporate arena-cum-shed.
Isn’t it great, or at least interesting, when people not really interested in guitar-based music make loosely guitar-based music? The Cumbrian foursome Wild Beasts now make delicate, pattering art rock, under which trickle gurgling, questioning electronics seemingly informed by Oneohtrix Point Never, Caribou and Emeralds. And, when they play London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire this Wednesday, both the opening acts will be experimental, firmly electronic—Norfolk’s Luke Abbott and the droning Braids.
Consider the final three songs on Wild Beasts’ most recent album, Smother. “Reach A Bit Further” lopes along simple, repeatable plucked chords but, halfway through, these are supplemented by lingering synthesised chimes and vibraphones which ultimately engulf the track. “Burning” (see above) is even stranger, with salvaged miscellany fashioned into Oriental reeds and reversed-prepared-piano. As the composition builds, massed wailing voices threaten the prettiness, as do gloaming synth pads and Tom Fleming’s forlorn baritone. Finally, there is “End Come Too Soon”, which begins canonically enough but soon drops out into an ambient, drifting passage. When the song, proper, cuts back in, it harnesses the playful experimentation and spurs it on into the anthemic.
This week sees the release of a new Kate Bush album, 50 Words For Snow. Bush is often seen as a reference point for Wild Beasts: both acts are blessed with easily identifiable lead voices, a passion for the pastoral, and also a similar aesthetic in their arrangements. And, according to Joe Kennedy of the Quietus, other contemporary records evoking a similar mood to the Bush album are from as experimental a stable as the acts I mention in relation to Wild Beasts: Burial’s Burial, and Plastikman’s Consumed. The circle, it would seem, has been completed.
“New squeeze, take off your chemise,
And I’ll do as I please.
I know I’m not any kind of heartthrob,
But at the same time, I’m not any sort of slob.”
Has feeling insecure about yourself ever sounded so seductive?
Where they previously rollicked in bacchanalian throes of ecstasy, Wild Beasts now smoulder in the snow, outside a cottage, and ruminate on the complexities of sexuality. On Smother, their third album, they withdraw even further from the boisterous carnality of their debut, Limbo, Panto, and make the steely funk of Two Dancers seem upbeat by comparison. Now they sound less certain of their sex appeal, even as they mentally undress fine young fillies on the heath.
The Kendal four piece’s familiar elements remain, but everything is dialed back, the melodies simplified, the tempos brought down to a slithering crawl, like a Cumbrian Fever Ray. Chris Talbot still reaches instinctively for bongos and rototoms on the off-beat, but now he only feels the need to caress them gently. Toning down the post-rock washes he used to colour in the gaps on Two Dancers, guitarist Ben Little instead works with cleaner tones, and he often just takes a backseat to the album’s more prominent keyboards. Continue reading Wild Beasts — Smother
Just checking in on you guys to prove I’m still alive etc. This post is going to be voluminous and far-reaching, and may be considered a portrait of the artist as a young man, aged twenty, approaching graduation.
The Kendal four-piece will release their third album, Smother, on 9th May; in anticipation of it, they have made available the meditative “Albatross”.
The new (OK, pushing the definition somewhat) song is silky and wafts in on a cloud of ambient keys, before a steely guitar melody takes over, underpinned by dubstep-sourced wobble bass. Unusually, given what we’ve heard from Wild Beasts in the past, the vocals in the verses are done in complete harmony, with Tom Fleming’s velvety croon no longer acting merely as a counterpoint to Hayden Thorpe’s arch falsetto.
It appears that Smother is going to be noticeably more informed by electronic textures, and the evidence presented on “Albatross” points to such a direction being taken. This is wild-eyed, ambitious art rock, crafted by people who now live in Dalston and listen to Ohneohtrix Point Never.♦
TV On The Radio
I thought the standout track on Dear Science was “Love Dog”; however, I didn’t anticipate the Brooklynite quintet to follow it by decamping to LA and making an album of homogenous, lovestruck, R&B-tinged rock.
“Will Do” was an early taster, and one that had me hooked in. Yes, it was more plaintive and unadorned than the kind of sonic warfare TV On The Radio (TVOTR) usually trade in, but it was lush in all the right places, and I thought it boded well for the album it preceded, Nine Types of Light. Now that the album has been released, I’m more ambivalent. To say it doesn’t break new ground is an understatement—this is predominantly tepid summery stuff, to listen to while tending to the barbecue (or, to use a word I’ve recently become attached to, “cookout”), and it certainly isn’t going to inspire a revolution.
But, this being the product of Sitek, Malone, Adebimpe and co., that’s not to say it’s bereft of merit. In fact, every melody is serviceable and the production brings a new level of glossiness to the band’s output. But it lacks the sparkle of faded grandeur that bled into their best work in the past. Dave Sitek no longer sounds like he’s using his guitar to carry out nuclear fusion; the two vocalists, normally so unhinged, now give off the appearance of having their legs up beside the fire, cup of cocoa to one side.
I’m sure this was the intention–and I’m hopeful that Nine Types of Light will bring TVOTR to a new audience–but it’s troubling that they sound like they’re on autopilot. I read that the gestation of this album was tortured, with Tunde (Adebimpe) and Kyp (Malone) literally despising their new surroundings (Rodeo Drive, next door to Sitek’s new home/studio). It’s strange that from such beginnings has sprung not an apotheosis, but a work of stagnancy. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Sitek said he needed the opportunity of making a solo album, Maximum Balloon, to flush the pop music out of his system, so he could go back and make the next TVOTR in the usual style. On this evidence, he didn’t try hard enough.
Prognosis: Adebimpe has leveraged his rom-com credentials to persuade the rest of the band into compliance. Prescription: a world tour characterised by indifference, which will bully the band back into their noisemaking ways, and away from middle-age ennui. TVOTR have always operated in harmony with prevailing global currents. Return To Cookie Mountain, their magnum opus, reflected the chaos and discord of America at war. Last time round, the optimism of Obamania and a rebirth crept in, giving Dear Science a dance-or-die attitude. But the last couple of years have been pretty rough for the world, in the context of which the ho-hum vibe on Nine Types of Light is bewildering.♦
The eponymous debut from this St. Albans dance-punk band really was a feel good hit of the summer (2009). “Live Those Days Tonight” is the opening track of their sophomore LP, Pala, and it plants the trio firmly on the dancefloor.
A heady concoction of tropical percussion and euphoric synths, “Live Those Days Tonight” begs comparison with the standalone single “Kiss Of Life”, the video for which was actually filmed on a beach in Ibiza. It’s sweaty and writhing, and has at least two masterfully executed drops, one of which features exactly the kind of spastic arpeggiated synth line I previously marvelled at on “Ex Lover”, which closed out their debut album.
The band have said Pala sounds, at times, like ‘N Sync or Backstreet Boys. Without having heard the entire thing, I can’t be sure how much their comments veer towards the ironic. But from all that I’ve read, we can expect this new album to revel in the glories of summer and festival-life, and maybe downplay the more shoegazey aspects of the previous album (which I liked very much). But it’s no bad thing in the evolution of a young band, to flirt with popstar-dom, especially since they’ve clearly got the chops for it.♦
Of course it would be remiss to post something on the blog without mentioning that LCD Soundsystem has retired, as of 2nd April. Like all good fanboys, I was glued to my computer screen for the duration of their farewell concert, aptly dubbed “The Long Goodbye”, which was being live-streamed on Pitchfork at the ungodly hour of 2AM, GMT. And it was long (four hours). And it was epic. And it was worth the fatigue I had to sleep off in the week that followed.
In short, it was a fitting tribute to a man, a band, a scene, and a city.
I’m going to write about this some more in a separate post…♦
Time to start a new feature. My starred tracks in Spotify are a rum bunch. There’s a mixture of deep cuts from newer albums, my all-time faves, and some older stuff that I need regular exposure to. It is this final category I reckon I could do more to blog about, and, handily, two such songs also have a link to LCD Soundsystem, so why not start with them?
I’m Not In Love — 10cc
James Murphy’s band came on to this 1975 classic every night of their final week of insanity (four three-hour gigs at Terminal 5, followed by the seemingly endless set at Madison Square Garden), before they sauntered into “Dance Yrself Clean”.
“I’m Not In Love” is a romantic’s nightmare, with a narrator who spends six minutes denying he’s in love, all the while tacitly admitting very much the opposite. Behind such lyrical confusion lies an arrangement dazzling in construction and beautiful to behold. Godley and Creme went to extravagant lengths to create a lush virtual choir, recording multiple overdubs of each note, then mixing them down into individual endless loops which could be summoned at will from the mixing desk, just by sliding up and down the faders of particular tracks. Painstaking but ingenious. The effect is both ethereal and mournful, with these vocal chords gliding through the mix like transient mists out on the moors.
Seabird — Alessi Brothers
Back in the autumn of last year, LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip embarked on a joint-headlining tour of the UK, which concluded with a show at the Manchester Apollo. I was privileged to catch the pair at Alexandra Palace, but it was only on the final date of the tour that they pulled off the inevitable, with James Murphy teaming up with Hot Chip for a one-off performance of the Alessi Brothers’ obscure 1977 cut, “Seabird”.
A curious choice, doubtless, but their crooning rendition inspired me to check out the original recording which, surprisingly, has aged rather well. With its primitive drum machine backing and a gorgeous chord progression played on Rhodes piano, “Seabird” is a lost soft rock gem, but one which could easily have featured in the charts circa 1995, as some kind of novelty hit. Check out the ephemeral harmony in the chorus! Propelled by a jaunty melody which lingers in the mind long after the refrain dies away, “Seabird” deserves a listen.♦