Release Date: May 10, 2011
Record label: Domino
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock, Post-Punk
There’s a moment on “Lion’s Share”, the opening track on Wild Beasts’ third LP, Smother, where a steady beat bubbles up in the low-end of the mix. The percussion slithers underneath Hayden Thorpe’s angelic falsetto and gentle piano melody, co-leader Tom Fleming lending his voice in harmony. Fans raised on the UK-based group’s past two albums, Limbo, Panto (2008) and Two Dancers (2009), know the signal: the rhythm section is readying itself to join the party in full, to work things into a lather in the way the band has already mastered.
In 1993, journalist Auberon Waugh established the Bad Sex In Fiction Award while editor of London’s distinguished Literary Review. It was intended to draw attention to what he called the “crude, tasteless and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in contemporary novels, and to discourage it”. Last year’s winner, Rowan Somerville (key line: “like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with too blunt a pin, he screwed himself into her” – ack), on receiving his award for his novel The Shape Of Her, declared: “There is nothing more English than bad sex.”[a]Wild Beasts[/a] might beg to differ.
Starting with Limbo, Panto's “She Purred, While I Grrred,” Wild Beasts have never shied away from singing about sex, but they master it on Smother. While Two Dancers refined their palate and palette, offering a deceptively gentle sound that masked some of their most hedonistic lyrics, Smother goes even further, pairing quiet, achingly lovely music with words that convey all the beauty and pain that come with desire. The lead single, “Albatross,” which drifts along a rippling, gamelan-tinged melody, gave a taste of the album’s subtlety, but not of its full power: Smother's title is perfectly chosen, evoking stifled cries and what it’s like to be so suffocated with want that only whispers come out.
Wild Beasts’ greatest strength has always been that they didn’t have the common decency to start life in any trendy tastemaker city. As such their music to date has tended to sit more towards the literary,‘artistic’ end of the scale, resisting the influence of the zeitgeist-led output of musical hotspots. After the cabaret mayhem of debut Limbo, Panto, Two Dancers found the band tentatively flirting with the mainstream with ‘Hooting and Howling’, the ad-sanctioned ‘Underbelly’ and the small matter of a Mercury nomination.
Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe emotes like the forsaken son of Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Antony. Thankfully, over the course of Smother, the English quartet proves they have the muscle to back up their lead singer’s melodramatic warble. A moody trip, the album opens with divisive near-show-tune “Lion’s Share” before settling into a series of low-key, melancholy tunes.
"It's about saying, are you going to come in and listen or not? Because if you're not, we're not going to accommodate you, to let you be part of and involved in this intimacy. " That's Wild Beasts' Hayden Thorpe speaking to The Quietus this week on both Smother, his band's latest, as well as the unmanageable position in which they've found themselves at home in England over the years. When the relatively isolated Kendal four-piece first arrived on the scene in 2007, their brand of flamboyant, almost vaudevillian indie rock was peerless in a landscape dominated by Arctic Monkeys and post-Libertines lad rockers.
That Wild Beasts wouldn't win the 2010 Mercury Prize for their sophomore album was almost a given. (The XX were shoo-ins.) But the nomination was a tangible endorsement of how far the band had come from the hit-and-miss lottery of their debut. With their latest, Smother, that development has accelerated even further. Where they've ended up seems to be exclusively populated with soft, swirling melodies, soaring falsettos and quite a lot of mirrors (for self-reflection, not vanity).The vast majority of the falsetto in question belongs to Hayden Thorpe, who takes the lead on more tracks than any album to date.
Wild Beasts have never been obvious. In 2008, Limbo, Panto unveiled Hayden Thorpe's extraordinary countertenor and songs with titles such as Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants were never likely to trouble Radio 1. The follow-up, Two Dancers, managed to receive a Mercury nomination, even with its operatic-graphic descriptions of "dancing cocks". Their third album ditches their old Associates/Roxy/Sparks guitar sound in favour of rolling grooves of electronica and percussion more akin to Antony and the Johnsons gone Talk Talk.
In Sonic Youth’s rather incomprehensible Or, Thurston Moore at least poses a great question right at the end of the song: What comes first/the music or the words? Depending on where you stand in terms of vocalizing your sexuality amongst others, disclosing your esteem for the Wild Beasts in an open setting might initially bring an uncomfortable air. Completely guileless about divulging fears and desires on record, the Kendal four-piece creates songs that mainly resonate in one’s intimate space. Unveiling their allusive lyrics is like a game of Charades – what one may surmise in their gender ambiguous accounts could mean so many things, yet that meaning becomes irrelevant since one gains an enhanced interpretation of one’s very own life story.
‘Wild’ is pretty low on the list of words to associate with Wild Beasts’ third LP, Smother, but that doesn’t mean the UK quartet have lost their magic. Toning down the sexual eccentricity of 2009’s Two Dancers, this album presents a mellow collection of songs by a foursome who continues to impress with their boundless talents and creativity. Smother begins with Hayden Thorpe’s uncanny trembling falsetto knocking you out on opening track “Lion’s Share”.
When they announced themselves in 2008 as the weirdest, most tragically mustachioed band in recent Brit-pop history, Wild Beasts were a band that defied characterization, and couldn’t be plugged into any genre. They dipped and dodged with each song, refusing any kind of yoke that could be put on them. Which is why it’s disappointing to see them, via album number three, Smother, excising the nutty joviality that propelled their first two albums, and replacing it with ten ballads that are more theatrical than a West End play.
Few are on the fence about Wild Beasts: You’re either madly in love with the Kendal, England four-piece or you find them alienating and off-putting. Either way, Wild Beasts have, for better or worse, refined a distinct and singularly affecting musical aesthetic, which is an achievement that commands respect all its own. Sensual, haunting, and inimitably bizarre and beautiful, their third album, Smother, is 10 tracks of the Beasts at their most vulnerable.
Unlike its claustrophobic title, at 40 minutes long, Wild Beasts’ third album Smother does not overstay its welcome. It’s confusing, though, because its ostentatious lyrics and elaborately crafted arrangements allude to something deeper and more sophisticated while offering little clue as to where it is heading in the short running time. It is difficult, then, to gain a real impression of what is intended by these efforts when the parameters of the project — time, mood, pace — are present but not particularly encompassing.
A special third album from perhaps the most inspiring, intriguing band in Britain. Mike Diver 2011 Wild Beasts’ rise from cult concerns loved by a critical clique, through Mercury Prize-nominated sorts with a sharp and saucy twist on typical indie tropes, to this third album of quiet, measured majesty represents a victory for individuality over intermittent trend-hopping. The Kendal-formed four-piece have only ever done things their way – and while early singles for Leeds-based indie Bad Sneakers lacked the production polish of later recordings, they possessed a singular potential.
THE ANTLERS “Burst Apart” (Frenchkiss) WILD BEASTS “Smother” (Domino) Lovers’ angst and keening male voices fill two new albums: “Burst Apart,” the second album by the Antlers, from New York City, and “Smother,” the third album by Wild Beasts, originally from Kendal, England. The two bands are trans-Atlantic kindred art-rockers, connoisseurs of torment and texture who are well beyond worrying whether some listeners will consider them overly precious. Each features a lead singer — Peter Silberman in the Antlers, Hayden Thorpe in Wild Beasts — whose voice heads for androgynous high notes.
England's Wild Beasts require an all-in devotion to appreciate. On third LP Smother, Hayden Thorpe's trilling tenor torques with an Antony-esque emotion that's not easily ingested, its overt sexual tension requiring submission to appreciate. Opener "Lion's Share" foreplays awkwardly between staccato verse and a wailing chorus, but the electro-paced beats of "Bed of Nails" settle into a sensual rhythm that accentuates the libido-laced lyrics more effectively.
The defining method many use on a band’s catalog is always one that can hold great distinction. For England-based Wild Beasts, they’ve confidently ensured that while their discography is still young, at now three albums rich, it has carried an identity of its own with albums that shine with magnificent melodies and instrumentation. After 2008’s Limbo, Panto, the band took little time to present 2009’s critically-adored Two Dancers.