Release Date: Nov 12, 2013
Record label: Thrill Jockey
Review Summary: Repetition is bliss.During an interview for the album Catch 33, one of the most mind bending albums in the history of music, Sweden’s Meshuggah were asked by Metal Hammer Greece whether they had a blast in copiously reproducing the complex and abstract patterns contained therein. Of course, the question was rhetorical. The Swedes responded by emphasizing the importance of repetition in conveying the listener out of the physical boundaries of his perceivable surroundings.
Renowned for repetitive and lengthy spaced out, drone-rock psychedelic jams, Wooden Shjips are gradually bringing down their average track length to more digestible durations. Back To Land marks a further step in this direction after 2011’s West indicated this was perhaps the future, as bandleader Erik ‘Ripley’ Johnson continues to fine-tune his songwriting skills. When Johnson relocated to Portland, Oregon a year ago he began listening to his old ’70s records again and that influence permeates throughout the band’s latest release.
There's a lot of psychedelic rock knocking around these days. Bands are dividing and sub-dividing the genre for their own ends, portraying themselves as either connoisseurs and anoraks of the genre - plumbing its depths and commandeering its more original, unique aspects - or as more broad, revivalist acts. Emulative to the point of irony, these latter acts are wont to change their singing accents (eg.
San Francisco’s Wooden Shjips have developed a reputation for exposing the fuzzier layers of a repetitive psych ‘n’ roll meditation. Groovy walls of bass, sinister organs and electric slabs of overdrive permeate their output, especially on their more-or-less breakout LP, West, released in 2011. That album, comfortable in its outsider, sludgy skin, amounted to a driving exclamation for the band’s drug-haze milieu.
The last album from minimalist motorik four-piece Wooden Shjips, 2011’s West, was notable because it was the first time the band had ever stepped into a professional studio to record. The band’s two previous full-lengths, and its lengthy series of EPs and singles, were all recorded in less salubrious environs, but that seemed to be the point with Wooden Shjips. The band’s fuzzed-out and echo-laden psychedelia referenced plenty of unorthodox void-gazers from the past, but more crucial than Wooden Shjips’ lineage was the fact that the band had previously stuck fast to a DIY, underground ethos.
Somewhere between 2011's West and 2013's Back to Land, members of the Bay Area psych rock act Wooden Shjips left their picturesque home base of San Francisco for the rainier environments of Portland, Oregon. Wooden Shjips' identity had always been somewhat rooted in their place in the San Francisco scene, going so far as to have an aerial photo of the Golden Gate Bridge adorn the cover of West. Growing out of their new, cloudier surroundings, the fuzzy, understated psychedelic boogie rock and mystical acoustic dreaminess of Back to Land don't sound decidedly more steeped in Northwestern dreariness and contemplation, but there is a noticeable shift toward more introspective songwriting and less jagged textures.
Ripley Johnson and Omar Ahsanuddin of Wooden Shjips recently abandoned San Francisco for more Oregonian pastures. Their latest, therefore, is 50% more donut and 50% less burrito. Both can exact their toll, slowing down near-frenetic jams, swinging them a little. Here: perhaps a little more glaze..
Compared with their previous six albums, ‘Back To Land’ occasionally feels a bit like Wooden Shjips lite. For starters, someone’s stumped up the cash for a proper studio, which means that they no longer sound like a bunch of hippies from San Francisco recording Stooges jams on a four-track during a night on the brown. This, unfortunately, spoils things a bit.
With the passing of Lou Reed, we’ve been consistently reminded of the Velvet Underground’s geographic, spiritual, and financial disconnect from the dominant hippy-dippy rock bands of the day, most of which hailed from California. But now that rock‘n’roll itself has become evermore disconnected from the contemporary popular-music landscape, the similarities between the New York and San Fran schools of late-60s psychedelia are more pronounced than the differences. Sure, the Velvets favored viscera over virtuosity, but they ultimately shared the same goal as their Pacific nemeses: to explode the parameters of the pop song through improvised, trance-inducing experimentation.
Have we reached peak psych, the point where Ripley Johnston's multiple musical endeavors converge into one, long hallucinogenic jam? The West Coast singer and guitarist has been on a roll, dropping four albums in two and a half years between the Krautrock-leaning Moon Duo and Wooden Shjips. On the latter's latest, it sounds like Johnson might finally be running out of gas. Wooden Shjips' thundering grooves always grounded their music, but Back to Land's front half floats off into the atmosphere before you even notice they're gone.
While San Fransisco acts like Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, and The Fresh & Onlys have gotten plenty of national buzz over the past couple of years, the deep fog jams of psych garage outfit Wooden Shjips have held sway in the city since their mid-aughts early days. Back To Land (the quartet’s fourth record) both lives up to its title and bares the results of a now-seasoned band, their footing a little surer, the focus a little clearer. Part of that change, if their statement regarding the album is to be believed, stems from two band members moving to Oregon, as if the very fog of the Bay has been distilled out the mix.
Wooden ShjipsBack To Land(Thrill Jockey)Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5 Back To Land is psychedelic rockers Wooden Shjips’ fourth LP, and first since leaving their native Bay Area for Portland. It’s curiously named, since, after its three more solidly navigated musical journeys, the Shjips (sic), this time out, seem adrift at sea. The album’s titular opener sets bandleader Ripley Johnson’s quiet mumble to breezy guitars and a Kraftwerk-ian groove, coasting along for five minutes before fading out, unresolved.
If Hollywood has taught the world anything it’s that each remote American town has one impeccable but effortless individual who chews toothpicks and drives a Dodge Challenger. It’s a lesson well learnt by Wooden Shjips who’ve written the perfect album for that guy, with ‘Back to Land’. It’s endless, sun-kissed and metallic, it’s the soundtrack to hazy monotonous desert roads.There’s an atmosphere heavy enough to suffocate, with the depths of psych leading to complete immersion, a total dreamlike state.
If, as has been mooted elsewhere, the artwork of Led Zeppelin III was an indicator of the sonic changes that rock's greatest behemoth were ushering in on the grooves contained within that platter, then the cover of Wooden Shjips' Back To Land can make a similar claim, too. While Zeppelin's gatefold sleeve was notable for its revolving inner disc card that showed alternately images of the band and magical symbols through the holes on the outer cover, here Wooden Shjips have wrapped their psychedelic artwork with a plain white sleeve complete with a new logo and holes of varying sizes that offer glimpses of what lies beneath. But whereas Led Zeppelin moved into more pastoral areas of exploration with their third album, Wooden Shjips have instead elected to shine the spotlight on the element of their music that gets mostly overlooked – the fact that they groove.
Wooden Shjips – Back to Land (Thrill Jockey)Since its beginnings as a mostly amateur drone collective, Wooden Shjips has sought release out of murky, repetitive simplicity. Even now, with skilled players not just at guitar (Ripley Johnson, always the ringer), but bass, drums and keyboards, Wooden Shjips clamps down on virtuosity. The band drenches circular riffs in corrosive baths of distortion, paces long-horizon tramps with rock-simple rhythms, oscillates numbingly between one or two keyboard tones.
The kite string tethering the floating music on the album “Vagabonde” is Mar Seck’s voice, one of the greatest in the Senegalese music of the 1970s and worth a closer listen. Mr. Seck worked with some of the top bands in Senegal: the Star Band de Dakar, Number One de Dakar, Etoile de Dakar.
The fourth album by celebrated San Francisco space-rock outfit Wooden Shjips has been pitched as a departure from the norm, an experimental expansion of the band’s signature sound. So, what do we get? Electronic beats? Excursions into exotic terrains? Multipart opuses that stretch the boundaries of the standard verse-chorus-verse structure? Well, no. In the case of Back to Land, the mooted boundary-pushing involves the occasional inclusion of acoustic guitars in a supporting role in the band’s drone-friendly Suicide-meet-’Sister Ray’ stew, as well as tunes that occasionally risk a third chord to supplement the band’s customary two- and single-chord workouts.