Anohni (f.k.a. Antony Hegarty) and Hayden Thorpe are owners of unforgettable voices. In the past, their respective œuvres were musically distinctive too. As Antony and the Johnsons, there were four albums of East Village baroque pop, ripe with violin, cello and hollow-bodied electric guitar. Thorpe, with his band Wild Beasts, released an imperial brace of manicured art rock, heavy on carnality, sensuality, and bongos. Continue reading There she goes, my ugly world
Wild Beasts’ Present Tense is decidedly grown-up in its attitude to love and lust, and it’s also home to two of the band’s most foreboding, non-sexual compositions. Continue reading Murmuring in the plague age
From the bowels of the BBC, Delia Derbyshire et al coaxed endearingly schlocky electronic sounds from rudimentary, homemade equipment. Twenty years after it started shuttering up for the final time, two bands are channelling a similar approach to very different conclusions. Continue reading Radiophonic Workshop Rock
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.
I don’t feel able to construct a properly ranked list of my favourite albums of 2011—principally because I didn’t listen to enough albums of 2011. Instead, I am posting morsels of goodness on a Tumblr, which you can find here.
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?