Reissue Of The Week: Wolf Eyes V/A – Difficult Messages

A compilation dredged together from a series of private press recordings of the core Wolf Eyes crew collaborating with friends is the perfect weird prism through which to examine the lockdown period we've just been through, says Daryl Worthington

When the first email was sent out announcing Difficult Messages, the new compilation from the extended Wolf Eyes family, it contained a puzzling and instructive video. The clip, from a film which the band haven’t made public yet, shows Nate Young and John Olson, currently the two core members of the band, locked in a bizarre routine. Olson begins walking backwards from the camera while Young drags himself upright from the floor. Stuck to the wall, as though a flurry of home improvement went awry, are a trio of silver boxes – sound generators which Young starts to manipulate. In accompaniment, Olson slowly twists and skronks a contraption of metal pipes which looks like an industrial-surrealist interpretation of a saxophone. Somewhere between performance art and living room noise gig, the two musicians seem to move at the wrong speed, as if suspended in airborne treacle.

It’s reminiscent of the odd choreography during the end-credits of White Noise – Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel – which sees characters dance through a supermarket, locked into the pulse of consumerism. Olson and Young, however, have been cut loose and set adrift. The tension that holds routines together, perhaps reality itself, has slackened. This disturbed lethargy seeps through all the jams on Difficult Messages and they form a meander through the Wolf Eyes expanded universe, coming across as a broadcast from limbo.

Beginning as a series of hand-painted boxsets of 7” singles, the original Difficult Messages project documented Wolf Eyes jams and various collaborations involving Young and/or Olson with their friends in noise: Alex Moskos (also Drainolith, AIDS Wolf), Gretchen Gonzales (formerly of Slumber Party), composer Raven Chacon and Wolf Eyes alumnus Aaron Dilloway. The second boxset in the series came housed in a sculpture of a mangled but working clock, hinting at the disjointed rhythm that seeps through this music. This new compilation collects recordings from across the series. It ranges from Time Designers’ (Young and Moskos) scattered drum machines through to Wolf Raven’s (Chacon, Olson and Young) charred metals and exploded sequencers, via the drawling slacker groove of ‘Dank Boone’ and excursions into unnerving country-esque jams on ‘3rd Night Tax Edit’ (both by Short Hands, aka Moskos, Olson and Young).

Bursts of hulking, amorphous free sound crop up on occasion, but the compilation typically finds these ad hoc ensembles playing as if they’re adrift in a sea of strange information. The 7” singles were created as “coping mechanisms” during the Covid lockdowns, as Young explains in the video, and they evince the disassociating effect of the pandemic. A sense of disorientation where reality seemed increasingly spongey. A time when a thin line divided wholesome attempts to stop the walls closing in from unwholesome obsessions, and global crisis bled into domestic reality.

You can hear it in ‘Lost Head’ by Stare Case, a relatively long-running alias of Young and Olson. A bass guitar line creeps unevenly, as if being scrawled anxiously into the walls. Pranged guitar chords hit like rogue punctuation, further contorting rather than smoothing the flow. Young drawls, “I’m coming back for you,” a line which could be a romantic promise but is delivered like a slurred threat. The nervous repetition accumulates overwhelming gravity. The sonic equivalent of a routine to pass the time turning into a compulsion.

Elsewhere, ‘Tense Lapse’, a track by Universal Eyes (Dilloway, Gonzales, Olson and Young) features degraded metallics covered in a smeared patina of contorted horn blasts. Buried within, barely audible, you can just make out a voice, someone lodged in the noisey maelstrom. The track is a congealed slab of slow-moving claustrophobia, a blast of self-isolation mood music.

The compilation is more than a collection of Covid melancholia, though. Wolf Eyes and their collaborators dwell in the strangeness of the pandemic. For those of us fortunate enough to experience Covid-19 as nothing more than a sudden deluge of empty time, it marked an unsettling threshold. Showing what would really happen if the day-to-day got fully disrupted. The musicians on Difficult Messages pause that disconcerting potential to see where it could go.

On Animal Sounds’ ‘Michigan Red Squirrel’, the world literally starts to laugh at the listener. Dominated by a cackle which might be the innocent call of a small rodent, it nevertheless carries an inescapable mocking quality. When an agitated synth pulse enters, paranoid delirium becomes palpable. Even Time Designers’ ‘Passive Tempos’ – a track which has the outline of a dancefloor banger – seems impaled on unwavering inertia. While the kicks carry monotonous forward motion, the hi-hats flail and scramble, creating a tension between anxious loop and high-speed disintegration.

The compilation’s relative brevity means it sidesteps some of the most out-there sounds featured in the original boxsets. Little space is given to the swarm of mutated beats and samples that dominate much of Difficult Messages Volume Two, or the full gamut of abstracted psych rock and meditative dissonances emerging on the fourth box. As a primer though, this is pretty comprehensive and, besides, much of the rest of the boxset material not featured here is fairly easily found elsewhere. Indeed, the sequencing of this compilation ends up telling its own story.

In a 2020 edition of The Stoa podcast titled ‘The High Weirdness Of Covid’, guest Erik Davis says: “The sense of being unmoored, at sea, scrambling, they’re actual experiences. That’s not just you. The thing itself is going wiggy." This suggests that making sense of Covid-19 requires accepting a weird naturalism, a sense that sometimes, anomalous things just happen with no higher cause or explanation.

Weird, for Davis, is the feeling of “liminality that happens when your sense of consensus reality breaks down. Particularly when you’re not invoking some kind of other-worldly, mystical or religious power.” For Davis, the pandemic brought this sense of weirdness to the fore. A journalist and author specializing in tech-culture and the fringes of conscious, his work has explored how our responses to weird events can be a lens to understand everything from psychedelic experience to conspiracy theories.

A knack for naturalising weirdness is a big part of what makes Wolf Eyes so compelling. It’s there in the mountain of small run releases that orbit around the major albums. The collaborations with free jazz legends and dance music producers, from Anthony Braxton and Sun Ra Arkestra’s Marshall Allen through to Beatrice Dillon. The perplexing live shows that swing from free improvised sound into freewheeling stand-up comedy. They’ve long revelled in and played with the fact they’re in conversation with a deeply embedded network of underground culture.

This embrace of the fringes comes through in spades on Difficult Messages. The compilation has been sequenced more jaggedly than the initial releases, accentuating the extreme jumps in genre. In doing so, it captures something of the underlying culture of folk weirdness that Wolf Eyes spring from and continue to be a part of. Indeed, listening to this compilation can make the listener feel as though they’ve stumbled across an AM transmission firing home spun experiments out into the ether.

The parallel to Covid being a normality-altering disruption is a long running clump of outlying strange culture that moves with a different rhythm to what’s at the middle. A world that’s always looked askance at the pulse of the quotidian. It is a periphery of peculiar sound and vision which would naturally be affected differently by a globally-scaled spanner in the works. With Difficult Messages, Wolf Eyes and their collaborators show that this world of off-kilter sounds is surprisingly well-suited to the documentation of some of the pandemic’s effect. When consensus reality gets destabilised, unconventional music seems increasingly pertinent.

It’s most apparent in some of the least typically Wolf Eyes’ sounding tracks on the compilation. Opener ‘Phone Intro’ has a voice garbled by the receiver. A seemingly one-sided conversation is clipped and disfigured over a stumbling, listless riff, as though media-induced solipsism has become audible. Similarly, the contemplative duet between twangy guitar and bass on ‘3rd Night Tax Edit’ is, from the outside, quite pretty. It gets bathed in sinister electronic detritus, but the most disturbing thing is when you listen in a bit closer. The interaction between the instruments feels ominously stifled – as though latency has made the conversation somehow not quite sync, a sense of discombobulation hiding in plain sight.

Wolf Eyes’ eerie power has always felt as though it were about more than merely delivering an ear-popping cleanse. They seem to pull a counternarrative to consensus reality – one that’s equal parts playful and unnerving – into definition. The screams and mashed technology heard on their Sub Pop albums Burned Mind and Human Animal evoke a violent human/machine interface, as if they were recording techno-utopian dreams turned into cyborg panic attacks. The vengeful crust-sludge on Dread feels like ambient-level frustration given no release valve and allowed to stagnate into rage. The bleak austerity of later albums, Undertow and I’m A Problem: Mind In Pieces conjure ennui turned toxic.

Their extreme sonics feel less an end in themselves than a mirror slipped beneath the cold underbelly of what’s normal to get a glimpse of what’s festering away on the flipside, treating noise as a way to boost the signal that unsettles normality and normalises the unsettled, rather than just a means to obliterate cochleas. This nuance comes across acutely on Difficult Messages. This compilation might represent a comparative toning down of the band’s extremes, but it doesn’t dilute their ability to evoke something unnerving, latching on to the underside of the every day. Slowing down and spacing out, if anything, allows that creepy sense of realisation to be experienced in higher definition.

Difficult Messages is out now via Disciples

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