Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Wild Beasts - Present Tense


'Saving grace' is quite the striking but overruling phrase to apply to any form of creative output. By default, it takes to the eclectic of material that came before as merely unsatisfactory, or perhaps unfulfilling in the context of the times and certain mood of the moment. In the scope and context of British rock however, five to six years ago, saving graces were pretty much scarce in their number and scarcer still in their lasting appeal; 'rock' as we'd come to see it in these isles had resorted to no more than a placeholder for bands whose only real dent on musical culture was that they'd further upped the appeal having a great big 'The' strapped to your name, brought you. Yes, the media are all too accountable for vying to base this country's recent out-pour on appearance and energy rather than underlining content, but there's no doubt (as I like to call it) Glastonbury-tier rock (as opposed to just calling it commercial/mainstream/well-known) has been an inside job when looking at the root of the genre's rot over the past half-decade. It makes bands like Wild Beasts then all the more enticing, not just because their sound over the course of five active years and three well-received albums has lent itself to clashing with the established repertoire of indie rock's 'rawness', but with it, the band have shown that scope shouldn't be measured only by size or swagger, but more-so by its opposition: simplicity and subtlety.

Few albums attempt (and perhaps gamble) with the assertion that less = more in the same way Wild Beasts' forth album, Present Tense, does. And while the band haven't exactly been ones to exert themselves on guitar payloads or percussive exertion across the breadth of their discography, the presence of a more cocooning, spacious stripping-back remains (even in this era of music) a feature that, on paper, could likely leave a brandishing of some underlining con to the band's narrative pro's. Yet, for all its supposed risk, Wild Beasts' lack of an atypical 'rock' set-up - of that guitars, drums, vocals norm (all of which are wrapped up in some stereoscopic burst post-production) - by no means lands the record leaning on crutches. Wanderlust, as energized as it is in its pulsating bass synth and waltzing drum hits, is not without its distinct void of traditional instrumentation. And while this is quickly apparent, it by no means deplores Wild Beasts' song-writing as any less resounding in its emotive effect. Hayden Thorpe's voice is what highlights the track's true beauty. Amidst a flurry of MIDI-controlled choirs, his stance as both this honest, laid-bare lyricist but also of this cynical, abrupt antagonist - 'Don't confuse me with someone who gives a fuck/In your mother tongue, what's the verb to suck?' - marks as an interesting paradigm, but one with which he delves brilliantly into. And aided on by the track's increasingly nightmarish tone in the closing parts shows how rich such simply-crafted tracks can appear.


Nature Boy shortly after finds Thorpe shift in parenthesis to baritone vocals that while initially more seductive and enduring are no less enthralling in their alignment with the track's crisp, unfiltered detail of percussion, as well as the building of harmonics (organic and synthesized alike) that bring to light, more-so in the case of what follows, another crucial part of the record's true beauty: its sheer scale in both depth and attraction. No track proves this better than the warm-if-isolated sound of Mecca - the track's sensitively ushering synth lines and Thorpe's overflowing voice cascading down onto the track on numerous emotional levels. And despite the obviousness of the track's physically limitation to that, again, of note-for-note drums and spread-over electronics, the psychological outcome from such sonic treatments - as demonstrated by Julia Holter last year, and similarly in Tom Krell's sophomore a couple of years back - inherits all the hallmarks of a vast landscape or tundra with which the spacious anxiety at the track's heart, cleverly treats with narrative ease but so too with a troublesome weight of emotional difficulty.
It's interesting then to listen through to Thorpe's lyrics - of simple-grounded, more-than-overdone concepts regarding love, desire, compassion...and yes, even sex - and find, in examples such as Sweet Spot, that Thorpe's metaphoric listing-off's in moving 'between the womb and end...between the bone dry and the dripping wet' don't at all sound tiresome or even off-putting. Again, on paper the sheer lack of poetic or even excitable word-play could get faces painting a very comedic or disapproving picture, but at the same Thorpe goes to neither extreme to indulge in any unwanted riddling or pretension of terminology. Because of this stripped-away, unfiltered, unmasked honesty, the track's stemming melody gives Thorpe's resonance that greater degree of empathy and understanding.

Glimpsing solely at the track-titles, it wouldn't be a stretch to guesstimate a good chunk of the album may end up divulging on such matters, and perhaps - if the music up to this point is any indication - the front-man vows to take the intimate (both physical and emotional variant) route so as to involve his listener on an aesthetic level as much, so obviously, on a verbal level. But whoever the primary target marker lands on, Thorpe never loses sight of his own internal direction; of where it is he himself as a singer - a human being - is homed in on, and the album's overwhelming ethereal effect thereafter never loses an ounce of its self-reflective quality. Pregnant Pause's melting piano chords offer a tender and enclosed pause in accompanying Thorpe's voice, and while the front-man doesn't interject the same level of targeted scrutiny, the track's blurring of keys and bass lines do highlight that eyes-shut, sealed-away focus wherein nothing unchecked branches out, yet at the same time the outside World is far from ignored. A Simple Beautiful Truth, while keeps hold to that luminescent, interior preset - with its centralizing, four-wall surroundings giving the bobbing key offerings and nestling guitar strums a greater acoustic shape, the feeling of calm in a perhaps tense, less-than-desired state of mind is what keeps this song from sounding too distant or overwrought. But it's the track's greater focus on its groove and rhythm - wonderfully managed by Thorpe's lyrical sway amid its chorus sections - that generates that impulsive, but warming uplift of mood.

A Dog's Life perhaps could be seen, and marked down unfortunately, as the only tiny, minor misfire across the album's lush imaginative use of space. Though there is some continuing intrigue with the use of gentle guitar strums and percussion that tumbles down and is picked up with as much the same crystal-clear definition, there is a niggling feeling afterwards that despite the impressive appliance of reverb and other effects atop synthesizers and the combining of instrumental layers around it, the track appear to reach the same emotional intensities as with previous tracks - tracks, more apparent, that achieved it so much more easily, with lesser substance on their palette. Past Perfect fortunately brings back the focus on groove in a strikingly high-brow expression of twanging guitar strings and flutters of bass that blend into Thorpe's own painterly quality to his voice; seeming to blend marvelously into the music's charmful personality as much as it brings to light, despite its subtlety, the delicateness of the band's guitar playing.

But no solitary piece is as withdrawn, as expansive, and thus as captivating in its awe as the track New Life so brilliantly illustrates with but a handful of chords and joint trade of electronic instruments gracing the backdrop to Thorpe's slow-crawling vocal delivery. It's without question one of Wild Beasts' most striking and affectionate compositions to date, but it's also - surprisingly - a song, a sound, that deliberately stands at a cross-roads regarding its overall subjective suggestion. In one instance it sounds dreamy and everlasting, in others like it's the result of a horrific event of which has left the World around it still frozen in position. Yet despite its ambiguity, because of Thorpe's eventual rise to the forefront as well as the reveal of percussion and rising backing harmonies, no matter whether the scenery is of a positive or negative nature, there's no taking away from the eclipsing scale and magnitude with which, amazingly, is achieved by no more than just a solitary, compressed, effect-treated drone of keys. And with album closer Palace, Thorpe's return to grey-area lyrics - 'In detail you are even more beautiful than from afar...if this is a palace then that was a squat' - is again completely devoid of any disdain outputted from the listener's perspective via said singer's lush interjection of longing and intimate engagement. More-so, the track's sloping arpeggios and glowing synthesizers give Thorpe's eventual falsetto outbursts that greater length of ambition and just desire - a feat equaled by the organic instrumentation in both piano and drums alike that, while less visible in the mix, strive just as much to send Wild Beasts' sound off on an undeniably warming high.

Thus, it's within the space of these eleven tracks, and of forty-plus minutes of the band's most striking, most honest, and most immersing efforts to date, that this new-found synthetic simplicity gives Wild Beasts the wings to escape their hardened shell, and lift off towards more graceful planes of song-writing. Not in some while has a vocalist in Hayden Thorpe provided so much of an enticement to lower one's self into a sound as complete as Beast's own, with the intention to feel both a part of the musical mass, but also vow to imagine one's self standing beside the band like in some late-night privilege of a live performance wherein the performance and the execution are at their most crucial, but most honest more-so. Present Tense not just excels on both these counts with its hand-crafted, carefully-considered resonance of arrangement and composition, but from start to finish, there's never a moment where the record's scope of tender synth lines and withdrawn instrumentation isn't met with a feeling of one's own desire to belong. But to do this with such a small and limited measure of notation and arrangement highlights just how inspiring Wild Beasts' crafting of an album falling back on perhaps the biggest tropes of person-to-person subject matter, is. But Wild Beasts have always been an exception - the saving grace - when it comes to being a 'rock' band identifying with the most passionate and personal of subject matter. But now, they're no longer mere exceptions to the rule. From out this album, they're masters of a new one.
~Jordan Helm

9.0 

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