Wild Beasts – Present Tense: round 64, Nick’s choice

Wild_Beasts_Present_TenseSelf-perception is a curious phenomenon. Everyone hears things differently (as three years of this club have proven!), so what musicians are trying to achieve isn’t necessarily what their audience hears their music as containing. This is part of the reason why ‘influence’ is a crazy concept; people usually use it as a synonym for ‘sounds like’ rather than ‘informed/inspired by’, anyway, but influence can also manifest in ways that simply aren’t sonically identifiable. Things that may seem like obvious inspirations to an audience may never have been intended by the artist, and may be the result of pure, blind happenstance, or else some kind of subliminal, subconscious appropriation, rather than anything deliberate.

Which is a really long-winded way of saying that, like many bands, I’m not sure that Wild Beasts know exactly what they sound like, or appreciate entirely what they’re good at – or, at least, what this singular member of their fanbase thinks they’re good at.

There’s been lots of talk about Present Tense being brave and a change and a statement from various people – most notably Wild Beasts themselves – and suggestion that they didn’t just want to produce Smother all over again (not that there’d be much wrong with that, as Smother is an excellent, moreish record that I adore). Which is fair enough; change is a good thing, and the best bands, in my mind, constantly evolve.

Except that, to my ears, off a dozen plays or more, Present Tense sounds like, if not a repeat, than a very logical progression and next step from Smother, rather than any radical break or revolution. Which is also fine. It may upset the band given their stated intentions, but Present Tense is almost just Smother with synths, if you will. The lyrical sauciness is slightly more domesticated, perhaps, and the sound a little fuller and richer as spidery guitars are replaced by warmly enveloping synthesizers, but they sit together very well as a pair. They’ve also expressed a fear that people might be put off by them ‘going electronic’, but to me, at least, Wild Beasts’ most defining characteristics are their fascinatingly eccentric pair of vocalists, and the subtle interplay of their collective musicianship, rather than ‘guitars’ as a primary aesthetic, so moving to synths, especially after “End Come Too Soon”, seems entirely appropriate.

The other thing that Wild Beasts have talked about repeatedly with regards to this album is their intention to write ‘pop’ songs. Now I’m not saying that they’re operating in the realm of Ornette Coleman or Swans or Keiji Heino here – structurally there are verses and choruses and melodies and hooks, which are the tools you’d expect of ‘pop’ – but, like Smother, Present Tense is a subdued, subtle, sensual record, far more about slowly shifting mood than thrills and spills. It’s resolutely atmospheric rather than anthemic (not that all pop is about anthems, obviously), and as such feels like something slightly other than pop.

Which is fine, because it’s another beautiful and compelling record, and Wild Beasts are a wonderful band of outstanding musicians (their drummer plays like a beautiful drum machine, rather than a real human percussionist). If I have a complaint, it’s that there’s maybe not enough of the whooping, sensual cacophony they used to produce; not enough drama, not enough noise. I’d prefer it if, for instance, after Tom (the deep, throaty vocalist) sings the phrase “the destroyer of worlds” at the centre “Daughters”, in the middle of the album, the synths actually did rend apart and destroy the song, with a dramatic dynamic leap into sonic chaos, rather than just oscillate beautifully once again.

I have absolute confidence that Present Tense will continue to unfurl layer upon layer of sound and tune and interpretation over the next 12 months and beyond, and that it will prove to be absolutely as good as its predecessors. I’d just prefer it if they’d injected some roiling chaos into their sound as well as all this glorious subtlety; they’ve lost a little of what it was that made them wild.

Tom listened: Curiously, I always think of Wild Beasts as a great band but, on deeper reflection, I have only really clicked with the Two Dancers album and, even on that album, about half of the songs leave me cold. However, All The Kings Men is so, so great and much of what Wild Beasts do is a cut above standard modern indie fodder, that I can’t help thinking they have got an absolute no-holds barred classic album in them yet. Unfortunately, on the basis of a first listen, this isn’t it!

I’ve been listening to Smother a fair bit since Nick played us Present Tense in part because Nick and Rob both revere it and I have always felt I have needed to spend more time with it to truly appreciate its qualities. So I listened to it another three or four times over the course of the last week and, whilst I appreciate the skill and restraint Wild Beasts demonstrate, it’s just too languid for me. As Nick has hinted in his review, Present Tense takes the sound of Smother and smothers (I can think of no better word) it still further. I have no doubt that this was Wild Beasts’ intention, that they have full artistic control over their output and I am sure they have pulled it off magnificently…it’s just that they have taken their music in a direction that does little for me. Give me the yelps, energy and restrained wildness of the best of Two Dancers any day. To my mind, the band need to go back to that album…and remember their name…when they come to make their next record.

Rob listened: I like Wild Beasts a lot and I like ‘Present Tense’ a lot too. I disagree with Tom when he yearns for more of the verve and abandon of ‘Two Dancers’ and perhaps even ‘Limbo Panto’. One of the things I cherish about where they have gone since then is their apparently deliberate progression towards the essence of what they have, their sound, their vision.

I’d love to hear another song as deliciously dangerous and whoopingly wild as ‘All The King’s Men’, and the joy of that track has hardly diminished with the years, but there are lots of bands trying to squeeze out the next earworm melody, the next 6 Music conquering hook. Wild Beasts are treading a different path. They seem to me to be hanging on to some sort of genome they are trying to crack, to perfect. Just as artists took the motorik beat in the 70’s and attempted to get to the root of it by driving it on and on, exploring its context, putting it next to contrasting elements in attempts to reveal or capture its pure essence, so it seems to me that Wild Beasts are driving towards their own purest form without knowing quite what that is. (As an aside, check out the Wikipedia page for Motorik. Some very dodgy references if you ask me…).

I’m also reminded of Jeff Buckley and the excitement I felt thinking about what he would go on to do in the years and decades which followed ‘Grace’. When ‘Sketches’ was posthumously released it brought home to me just what a powerful artist he could have gone on to be, precisely because he was heading off to explore what he could do with what he had, rather than trying to write a bigger, more crowd-pleasing version of ‘Last Goodbye’.

I’ve enjoyed listening to ‘Present Tense’ for many of the reasons Nick gives above. I don’t think it’s as complete a record as ‘Smother’. It seems to be a partial step towards something else, something similar but different, and that’s more than enough for me in this case.

 Graham listened: I’ve enjoyed all the Wildbeasts I’ve heard at DRC and beyond. But never quite enough to think about going out and buying in to it in the days and weeks afterwards. Something about not being quite enough it in for me and my insensitivity to their subtlety.

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Wild Beasts – Two Dancers: Round 49, Nick’s choice

twodancersA quickly-arranged meeting with an agreement to play short records because one of us has had a baby or something; I had three records in mind, all under 40 minutes, two of them American, one of them British. When I realised it was St George’s day, the choice became obvious: old George, English hero, spend a big chunk of time rampaging round Europe like a drunken idiot, abusing women and starting fights. Wild Beasts are English, and Two Dancers casts an unflinching eye over the baser instincts of gangs of young men. It seemed fitting.

In some ways Wild Beasts are a classic four-piece rock band, but there’s a lot more going on with them than that reductive description suggests. The songs on Two Dancers unfurl and evolve in ways which aren’t obvious and which seem capricious at first, but which start to feel refined with familiarity. Rhythms lock together and interplay in understated, compelling ways for extended periods. The band’s two (extraordinarily gifted) singers occasionally indulge in whooping, sensual cacophony, and there are explosions of almost-brutal guitar noise amidst the sensuous grooves. The tension between rhythmic and structural control and the emotional releases that puncture proceedings is exhilarating, but it seems much more controlled now than it did before.

I’m not normally one for dissecting lyrics, but the words on Two Dancers are fascinating. They could easily be taken as saucy, salacious even, if they weren’t also laced with disturbing, menacing imagery. You could see the album as presenting a narrative arc, beginning with songs which unflinchingly reveal the baser instincts of groups of young men out on the town, offering only description and leaving critique to the listener, ruthlessly depicting drunken one-night-stands (“trousers and blouses make excellent sheets / down dimly-lit streets”) and murderous sexual possessiveness; “Hooting And Howling” openly threatens to murder “any rival who goes for our girls”, the protagonist refusing to excuse himself, acknowledging the brutality in his nature.

Things climax unpleasantly with “Two Dancers (I)”, which seems to describe a sexual assault from the point of view of the victim; sung in a throaty, masculine boom, it acquires a disquieting air of disconnected sympathy. Is this the inevitable end-point of the untethered (unfettered) and unchecked and irresponsible masculinity already depicted? “They dragged me by the ankles through the street / they passed me round them like a piece of meat / his hairy hands / his falling fists / his dancing cock / down by his knees / I feel as if I’ve been where you have been”: the picture painted is stark and shocking and unflinching, but the context is vague, the narrative voice not explicit, the melody forces you to sing along and thus insert yourself into the trauma, the singer seemingly separating himself from the narrator, forcing you to identify with the victim. The final two songs seem to portray first guilt on behalf of the protagonist and then condemnation on behalf of his culture.

Two Dancers is a hell of a journey to undertake as a listener, as emotionally draining as it is exhilarating. And it takes less than 38 minutes to do it. It’s an incredible record, one of my very favourites. Hell, I even own a Wild Beasts t-shirt, like a fanboy.

Rob listened: Wild Beasts are a band to be cherished, not least for the way they have explored and understood their own sound and aesthetic, focusing relentlessly on the pulsing core of what they do/want/need and getting to it. In some senses their greatest achievement is their progression across three albums, meticulously stripping away the extraneous to get to ‘Smother’, perfect distillation yet still one which depends on its two predecessors to evidence what has been excised and thus illuminate its full splendour.

Going back to ‘Two Dancers’ after listening so much to ‘Smother’ I was surprised at how close the two actually felt. For me ‘Two Dancers’ was always unavoidably, and arguably unfortunately, dominated by ‘All The Kings Men’, a perfect intelligent pop single. Reflected against the album which followed it, the rest of this collection really shines. Unlike Nick I never found ‘Two Dancers’ a disturbing listen, to the extent that I never really worked out which was the gang rape song all the critics were referring to. I just loved the sounds, and now I think I love them even more.

Tom Listened: I bought the first Wild Beasts album, Limbo Panto, having been seduced by hearing the singles from it being played on 6Music. It was hard to ignore them, they sounded way off kilter but were hook laden and relatively accessible at the same time. They certainly stood out on the (lamentable) Steve Lamacq show when they were often surrounded by hours of the indie by numbers drivel he is so fond of playing. But the album itself was too much for me, voices strain way beyond their comfort zone, lyrics are smutty and too clever by half, songs are unrealised and underdeveloped. The singles were (by far) the best thing about Limbo Panto. So I kind of decided to part ways with Wild Beasts at that point.

Then, a couple of years later, Rob lent me a copy of Two Dancers. What a revelation! There can be few examples of bands raising their game so much between their debut and sophomore recordings. Two Dancers is not perfect and is still, to my ears, inconsistent, but the highs are many and very high indeed. The band sound confident and have begun to understand how to use their (amazing) voices to best effect. So I like Two Dancers a great deal but not unequivocally. However, one thing is for sure: with the song All The Kings Men, Wild Beasts surely have one of the best singles from the last ten years.

Graham listened: I must be a sensitive soul as I found this highly disturbing. Given the imagery and lyrical content, I felt I needed to go back to Smother, to see if I had missed something when I listened to that. Wary of the lyrics of Two Dancers, I needed to find child free time to do so and finally managed it tonight while making a risotto (its a great risotto album, nicely paced, could be on to a future theme here!). Whereas Smother seemed instantly accessible and the vocal styles seemed to fit, Two Dancers was far more of a challenge for me on all those fronts. Not saying I won’t get it in the end, but I would need to give it time to grow, or more appropriately, subvert.