Release Date: Aug 5, 2016
Record label: Domino
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
As Wild Beasts get older, they get wiser—continuing to move inexorably towards a carnal lust that proves more dark and twisted than the teenage fumbles of their earlier incarnations. While 2014's Present Tense prowled around the fringes of such lust, taking stock of its emotional fragility, Boy King tears its way to the center in a smouldering, multi-flavoured gumbo of layered electronica. For one, Wild Beasts have now become a fully-fledged electro-pop outfit.
Few modern bands have ploughed their own furrow as distinctly as Cumbria’s Wild Beasts. Since Limbo, Panto in 2008, they have shape-shifted from effeminate, humorous, quirky art-pop with rude lyrics (“I swear by my own cock and balls”) to lush soundscapes of near-operatic grandeur (2014’s Top 10 Present Tense). Their fifth album tears up the plans again and features the most muscular grooves of their career.
There’s a lot to be said for a band perfecting their niche. With 2014’s ‘Present Tense’, Wild Beasts blossomed like never before. Taking their delicate, delirious, lovestruck sound and tightening every screw, it was the final tinkering of a beautiful engine, one that took the band to pole position. A decade in, though, and that edge-of-a-cliff, fight-or-flight instinct has taken over - with ‘Boy King’, they’re painting go-faster stripes all over their car and taking it for a drag race in the desert.
Wearing hearts, lungs and other vulnerable organs on their sleeves, Cumbrian artisans Wild Beasts turn their gaze to the male ego on their newest record. Exhibit A, titles: Big Cat, Tough Guy, Eat Your Heart Out Adonis – even Boy King itself. Present Tense may have explored identity, but here the focus is patently gender. He The Colossus is a fearful, conflicted thing, helpless in its power ('Everything just dies in these hands'), while Alpha Female is a square-jawed, futurist groove on feminism, with Chris Talbot’s high-fidelity drums driving mounting, distorted synths.
“Do I dare disturb the universe?” asks Wild Beasts singer, Hayden Thorpe, quoting the far less self-assured title character of TS Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in their song, “He the Colossus”. But don’t be fooled: despite this track’s comparative moment of reflection, (“Do I dare disturb the universe,” he asks, “ lest I become He the Colossus”) the role of Colossus is freely assumed throughout their new record, Boy King.
Though Wild Beasts started streamlining their sound on 2011's brilliant Smother, they've rarely used minimalism as purposefully -- and symbolically -- as they do on Boy King. On their fifth album, Wild Beasts lay their music and themes bare, giving them an urgency that feels like an equal and opposite reaction to Present Tense's contemplative sensuality. With the help of producer John Congleton, they craft taut, synth-driven grooves informed by hip-hop and R&B.
Ever since they first emerged from Cumbria in the late 2000s with their debut album Limbo, Panto, Wild Beasts have been one of the most consistently interesting, intelligent bands in the UK. Boasting a highly idiosyncratic combination of angular yet strangely insidious melodies, poetic lyrics and atmospheric, art-rock backdrops, topped off by singer Hayden Thorpe’s soaring falsetto, the quartet rapidly built a body of work that established them as the direct descendants of ’80s luminaries like Talk Talk and Hounds Of Love-era Kate Bush. Following the modest success of Limbo, Panto, they went up a gear with the more confident, subtle song craft of follow up Two Dancers a year later, before arguably reaching a career to date peak with 2011’s Smother, a gorgeous, shimmering, challenging yet accessible record that perfectly encapsulated all their strengths.
Over four albums, Wild Beasts’ snaky percussion, kaleidoscopic guitar lines, and equally comic and self-lacerating regard for masculinity gave them a unique standing in the British indie scene: just as beloved by beery gig-goers chanting their riffs as by those who wouldn’t usually touch a four-piece guitar band with a big stick. So it’s odd that their fifth album arrives with co-frontman Hayden Thorpe telling reporters, “We’ve become the band we objected to being”: The swaggering American rockers that they rebelled against in their schooldays. During a period of heartbreak, Thorpe realized that he’s just as bad as the macho beefcakes they’ve often lampooned, and saw two possible paths stemming from the electronic intricacy of their last record: lab-coat music, or to “don the leather jackets and embrace the chaos and carnal force of rock‘n’roll,” he said.
The roll call of artists for whom US producer John Congleton has applied his sonic touch is impressive, but none bear any relation to another (Swans, The Roots, Sparks even). So Wild Beasts seeking him out for a change in direction seems odd. Still, their sound has changed, be assured. Hayden Thorpe’s falsetto remains, of course, but it’s backed now by a sexed-up pulse.
Around the time of their first album, 2008’s Limbo, Panto, Wild Beasts were neither wild nor beasts. Taking their name from fauvism, the early 20th-century art movement, this operatic indie foursome were a repository of erudite, swooping art rock. The red-blooded falsetto of Hayden Thorpe used to crack ecstatically, so deeply felt were their songs.
The last we heard from Wild Beasts, they were singing “Don’t confuse me for someone who gives a fuck.” The lyric arrived during the final movement of “Wanderlust”, the lead single from 2014 LP Present Tense, and it marked the high point of the band’s accomplished weariness. Somehow Wild Beasts managed to sound fatigued and energized at once, someone who could be confused for having fucks to give. Part of the band’s charm has been their ability to create beautifully byzantine displays of angst.
There's always been a potent element of performativity to Wild Beasts' music: the syrupy pianos and synths; Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming's duelling, operatic vocals; lyrics about the animalistic nature of human beings. The British quartet's production has always been equal parts simmering and striking, lingering in the synth-y shadows to best calculate when to launch a hook-laden attack on their listeners, and it's led to much success over their first four albums.But on Boy King, Wild Beasts' fifth LP, the band take on a more dance-oriented sound that doesn't pay off. A loose concept album about toxic masculinity, their newfound posturing and posing ultimately strips away much of what made the band a success.
Fauvism took life in the early 20th century as an unruly outgrowth of the Impressionism, expanding on its innovative use of color and movement while paying even less attention to representational accuracy or formal precision. The so-called “wild beasts” behind fauvism, among them Henri Matisse and André Derain, produced work depicting everyday scenes through a filter of gaudy unreality, favoring a chromatic arsenal of purples, pinks, and blues. In the rare case of a band selecting a suggestively high-culture moniker that does more than signal some intrinsic snobbery, Wild Beasts (originally known as Fauve) emerged from a fairly staid London indie-rock scene with a similar sort of outlandish ostentation, shaping a singular aesthetic that blended cerebral sincerity with a flamboyant sense of absurdity.
At the turn of the decade, Wild Beasts were one of the most exciting acts the UK had to offer. After the release of their still unparalleled Two Dancers in 2009, the Kendal four-piece rode a wave of hype and a well-deserved 2010 Mercury Prize nomination. They built on the momentum of the erratic, yet highly inventive, Limbo, Panto (2008) with a gorgeous, soulful and innovative record, prompting attempted sing-a-longs on singles 'Hooting & Howling' and 'All the King's Men', and sounded like a band completely unshackled by outside influence or current climate.
There’s a Louis CK line from one of his standup shows in which he talks about getting in a lift with a guy who’s too cheery. He’s tired, just back from tour, and he recoils from the man with the urge, Louis says, to ejaculate on him: ‘Like a squid or a skunk - not sexually, I mean aggressively.’ And that’s how Boy King comes across on the first few listens, as if it’s squaring up to us, strutting, all testosterone and violent, eyeballing virility. Sure, Wild Beasts have been combative before - the opening of “Invisible” is brutal, slaughtered enemies tumbling into a gaping hole, whilst that synth drop in “Daughters” is still visceral - but this - this is something new.
Early on England’s Wild Beasts reveled in the Morrissey-like theatrics spilling from their brooding indie rock, with dual vocalists Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming candidly gnawing the scenery of each track. They were an acquired taste. The vocals felt like one continuous flourish, practically operatic in form, and the band’s first two solid albums, Limbo, Panto (2008) and Two Dancers (2009), flaunt a bravado that sometimes prevents you from seeing the forest for the trees.
It's been a rather emotional beginning of September for those who are wholly enraptured with Nick Cave's chilling Skeleton Tree. But if you've been looking for some music to decompress with, then the past month featured some rather great offerings. My top choice for the month goes to the singular Katie Dey, who's experimental folk had be both bewildered and fascinated, while Carl was more than happy to endorse another winning effort from Wild Beasts.
Wild Beasts 'Boy King' (Domino)Wild Beasts are back, this time with an “apocalyptic” second album exploring sex and death. Full of smart, pleasing vocal hooks and chiming guitar solos, ‘Boy King’ is way more rock than their electronic debut. “I’m letting my inner Byron out,” said frontman Thorpe, and on the gritty yet seductive ‘He The Colossus’, he teases “You’re my sweet cherub, you could have me any time.” Written in London and recorded in Texas, ‘Boy King’ is intrusive, abrasive and in-your-face – but that’s no criticism: one can imagine lads properly belting out ‘Big Cat’ and ‘Alpha Female’ at live shows.
Make no bones about it: I was, for a time, in mourning. The problem with Wild Beasts’ insistence that they needed to kill the perfect group they’ve been for nearly 10 years and “become the band we’ve always objected to being” instead is that I wasn’t ready for them to die at all. And in some ways, the kind of songs they sing - sang - feel just as vital and important and necessary as they ever did.
So alongside the creeping softness of ‘Dreamliner’ – which is full of Alt-J-worthy waves of sensual electronica – we get the biggest noises the band have made to date. ‘He The Colossus’ sees them experimenting with brazen riffage as frontman Hayden Thorpe sings the praises of the “come-to-bed eyes” of his “junkie love”, like Suede’s Brett Anderson by way of Aphex Twin. ‘Get My Bang’ is similarly huge, with a beefy bassline underpinning Thorpe’s account of how he secures his shags.
Word association is dope when used properly. In terms of shortcuts, I’m a master, especially if those shortcuts are of the Using-English-to-Remember-Stuff variety. I can’t tell you a single thing about Meatloaf’s musical catalog past the laboriously vivid “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” but I can tell you with certainty that His Name is Robert Paulson.