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Wild Beasts
Limbo, Panto Kev Kharas , June 24th, 2008 00:00

Wild Beasts - Limbo, Panto If you've ever heard more than a few seconds of Wild Beasts, the likelihood is that you’ve already arrived at your own, partisan opinion of the Cumbrian quartet. Of main consideration will have been Hayden Thorpe, in whose gills seems to rest the power to recruit allies and archenemies alike, often within the same fell, vocal swoop. That voice, curse or blessing depending on who’s listening, is what gives Wild Beasts much of their identity and all the rub they need to land a gig as Marmite’s house band. However, despite the temptation to marry the two (the yeast extract’s home is Burton-on-Trent, a couple of hours drive from Wild Beasts’ Kendal turf) that metaphor has already been hammered into impotence and you reach instead for something more divisive, like gay marriage or the Suez Canal.

It’s thanks to Thorpe’s voice that Limbo, Panto unravels as dramatically as its name — and with as heavy a sense of destiny as that weary comma — would suggest. As opener ‘Vigil for a Fuddy Duddy’ lopes into view the wail that greets your ears startles in its sauce, but it’s silk compared to the feral, fungal throat in full and earthy vigour by fourth track ‘Woebegone Wanderers’, which appears to tell a tale of corruption within the ranks of a lower league football club. “I swear, by my own cock’n’balls”, the singer hacks, choking on lichen lumps, before the threat vanishes in a fit of indecipherable caterwauling.

If it’s moments like these that tempt you to imagine a Wild Beasts cropped of Thorpe’s histrionics it’s songs like the fine ‘Devil’s Crayon’ and ‘His Grinning Skull’ — to which bass player Tom Fleming lends voice to bicker with his partner, Punch to wailing Judy — that indulge the whim. Two of this record’s strongest tracks, Fleming’s florid tenor is made to sound prosaic by Thorpe’s standards but its relative reliability gives fire to the music, Chris Talbot’s drumming and the shimmering lead guitar work of Ben Little bristling, more animated.

Whether that swelling in the balls is down to Thorpe’s retreat from the mic back into musical ranks is a bone that’s worth snarling over, but in either case Wild Beasts remain thrilling fare, artfully conjuring pastoral scenery over which Thorpe can perform his theatrics, voice rising and falling like a stunt plane over a restraint that opens its fly to piss serenely on the knee-jerk comparisons to Mika or The Darkness I’ve been hearing of late. Serious — Wild Beasts are no maximal clowns.

Perhaps what gets up the nose of the Wild Beasts detractor is that you can’t remove Hayden Thorpe — or those theatrics — from their equation. You could even argue that he is Wild Beasts, to a large extent; the songs seem built for the peaks and troughs his fickle register scales, instruments treated as props while the lead actor plays to the cheap seats, whinnying bawdy tales of winded lads, fumbled lasses, swigged bottles and chips taken with cheese. If this all sounds horribly familiar, worry not. Wild Beasts leapfrog tired tales of kebab houses and Stella cans to mine a richer seam — that theatrical tradition buried centuries-deep in Blighty — exposing the roots of the dramas played out in those towns of Britain that seem entirely drunk come Saturday night and the easy anthems of chart-bound, short-sighted peers. Their retreat into that theatrical tradition, felt most keenly whenever Thorpe parts his lips, gives Wild Beasts an anachronistic quality that is as precious as it is obvious in song titles like ‘The Club of Fathomless Love’ and ‘Cheerio Chaps, Cheerio Goodbye’.

Unsurprisingly, this clash between the odd and the familiar results in something oddly familiar — and it’s the ability to look beyond the obvious and find new wonder, to see the exotic in Britain’s pastoral climes that grows Wild Beasts’ family tree. Like these four saplings The Smiths, Associates, even Orange Juice to an extent, looked to create theatre from the apparently mundane and as Limbo, Panto unfolds Thorpe develops a voice and a lyrical style as singular as Morrissey’s, Edwyn Collins’ or Billy Mackenzie’s. There’s a musical kinship with those acts too, obviously — guitars that crash in the tepid surf of Saint George’s Channel rather than the Pacific, while the rhythm section keeps its shirt on and watches from the shore. There’s also something fairly brilliant about the way Talbot reclaims the cowbell for frigid British Friesians on penultimate track ‘Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyant’. The Rapture this ain’t.

Determined to be taken on their own terms, these inimitable Wild Beasts just might be one of — if not the — most interesting young band in the Kingdom. And whether you’ve already got Thorpe pinned as hero or villain, surely we can agree that it’ll be interesting to see how this plot thickens. Surely? Whatever - it's cheerio for now, chaps. Cheerio, goodbye.