, March 17th, 2017 14:19
Your favourite voraciously prolific cottage industry of errant noise art reveals its latest fugitive deformity. Now comprised of founding member Nate Young, John ‘Inzane’ Olson and Jim Baljo, though prone to contributions from former cohorts Aaron Dilloway and Mike Connelly, the Wolf Eyes troupe find themselves in a privileged position after 2015’s I Am A Problem: Mind In Pieces. A record that tore into a barrelling cement mixer scuzz that, in its brutal, mind-rinsing rotation, felt like an abject alliance between dub, metal, psych, hardcore and avant-jazz, ending up appearing on, of all places, Jack White’s Third Man Records. Yet that unlikely link-up did little to compromise their throttle and their derangement, their propensity for straight up smash and grab and strung out mystification. Here they mark the inception of their own label, Lower Floor Music, with a record just as obstinately unruly, but in this instance it’s a work that bespeaks enervated energies and far-gone trajectories rather than searing barrages, a sweltering electrical storm that, instead of concerted fire, sows its creative destruction slowly and intensely.
Contrary to the instinct for pounding drums and frayed-wire overload exhibited on their last outing, Undertow feels devitalised and oppressed, the sound of what it feels like to be backed into a corner – a vicious baring of teeth in an enclosed space. As the lyric and the mood of ‘Thirteen’ suggests, the consequence of severe estrangement and disillusionment, ‘when the fumes become you.’
That’s not to say that in this creeping morass of despoiled drone and lethal cacophonic buzz there isn’t a perverse, submersible power. Just like the lingering moments of I Am A Problem… – the outernational dislocation of ‘Catching The Real Train’, the denuded, deteriorated psychedelia of ‘Cynthis Vortex aka Trip Memory Illness’ – this is singed, brooding, unwilling to gratify a desire for thrash and surge, but voltaic and impossible to suppress.
The title track makes that clear from the beginning. Insectoid fizz enflames the mordant, hellish gravitas of a few spare, stout strums and liberal contortions of form and orientation that sound like amplified scrapings of metal and fourth dimension free jazz begin a record mired in a dread that drawls and drags its feet but relents little. The lyrics of the introduction serve as an indication of the state of the band’s collective headspace: ‘Well I spent too much time stepping outside/That place is never gonna change.’ Professions of wasted time, mortality and resentment follow till the conclusive question rings out: ‘Don’t you see there’s nothing left to forget?’. It doesn’t feel like the insulated denial of a band disengaged from the here and now and it certainly doesn’t sound like one, more like a bleak, caustic jolt to the system, an abrasive kneading of the skull with sparks spitting in a screwed time zone.
In the same way that a Throbbing Gristle record often couples elongated mood pieces with short, sharp shocks of the uncanny and the pulverised ‘Laughing Tides’ follows the dense crawl of the opening with the sound of steel screeching to a halt; a concrète emittance of high-pitched creaks and groans. Yet the distinction remains. This isn’t a stoic process of annihilatory subversion, this is heavily processed perception warp, a stoned soul picnic without the soul and without the picnic, just an inebriated, freakish assembly with a hotwired soundsystem blaring out the treated emanations of power tools. More zoot friendly than leather lovin’ psychic warfare though I imagine there’d be room for both in this provisional projection.
‘Texas’ offers little relief from such dissonance and haze, with the strangulated noise howls of ‘Laughing Tides’ spilling over into its opening passages and flaring up intermittently throughout. Yet with the crack and whip of FX that sound like pylons short circuiting and the monotonal drub of guitars adding something solid to the ruckus, it feels like the meeting point between the right-on, partly rockist bravado of Undertow and the wrecked Neubaten squall of ‘Laughing Tides’. With it, Undertow begins to settle into the semblance of something stable, even if that stability is rooted in an industrial psychedelia that you feel could easily unravel into volatility at any moment.
On ‘Empty Island’ the unsteady foundations of that stability are just about maintained though not without disorientating threats. Reverberant ricochets of a dub music predicated less on bass weight than on turning the materiality of sound inside out are bedded in a relatively serene, acid-fried atmosphere. If it wasn’t for the mangled solos you could probably kick back and zone out, but the likelihood of that happening becomes less and less realistic as those licks of guitar go evermore south and start making less sense, even to an addled mind. Still even with this later disarray, the pace is unhurried, and the sounds stretched for maximum mindtrip potential. As with the previous ten or so minutes, the infiltration into the world of Undertow – mirrored by an artwork which looks like Felicien Rops if he decided to dabble in horrifically haunting watercolours – is not done by brute force but by a gradual seepage, a leaden but irrepressible spew of atonal clatter and repurposed machine dirge.
If there’s a drawback to Undertow it’s that the stimulating, bruising weirdo stride of the title track isn’t emulated in the excursions into industrial noise, hard-edged psych and experimental dub that follow it. In these moments, it seems the band are seeing how far they can go rather than how hard and dramatic they can hit. Nevertheless, in the anti-heroic spoken word snarls (‘I count every deceit, as they repeat/like receipts of doom’) nauseous lysergic skulk and progressive disintegration of ‘Thirteen’ there’s a sense that these excursions were worth it, necessary parts in a greater whole, bound together by the terminally wired, acrid inculcation of the intro and the SunnO)))-in-a-desert-taking-peyote odyssey that is the outro.
There’s something inevitable about the arrival of a new Wolf Eyes record, yet another noxious notch in a sprawling discography. What’s becoming less certain, as they reach more and more of the uninitiated, is where that record takes them. On Undertow there’s less of the upfront ferocity of previous years but it’s not as if they’re toning anything down, just prolonging the hallucinatory qualities and the twisted, anomalous ardency of their vision. Slower, grimmer, prone to slipping into sidereal currents but still repping a spumescent avant punk noise blowout versed in the temporal black magic of experimental electronics and dub, this isn’t what many would want but this is what many deserve. An unholy and timely acid test for the Trump era. The soundtrack to signing out, getting blasted and letting your head melt.