- by Carrie Grayson Rating:8 Release Date:2018-07-13 Label: Northern Spy Records
Last Spring, Wilder Maker was a band on the early evening ticket of Savannah Stopover. Despite their strong presence around NYC, and a recent breakout indie-pop single, “New Streets”, they weren’t really on my radar. Curious, I settled in to see them perform and SNAP, I left intrigued and captivated….So when the opportunity to review their newest album came up, I raised my hand. Little did I know the tangled, hypnotic, soul searching I would experience while listening.
Wilder Maker is Gabriel Birnbaum, multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter. Birnbaum is joined by Katie Von Schleicher, another songsmith who seamlessly alternates with Gabriel on lead vocals and plays a mesmerizing keyboard. Rounding out the band are Sean Mullins on the drums, Nick Jost strumming the bass with bluesy depth and Adam Brisbin. Listening to their music, you experience an intimate portrait of their inner workings.
Gabriel Birnbaum has a storied musical past growing up with a family of musicians. Early on, he played blocks underneath a piano while his older brother played Chopin, and he often begged his parents for multiple spins of Paul Simon’s music. Gabriel’s years of musical exploration, songwriting and recording helped him develop a band of great musical talent and newly focused collaboration. Wilder Maker’s lead is a creative force and lyrical poet. In their newest album, he paints a portrait with snapshots and notable glimpses of the pulsing city experience. Even the album cover suggests the illumination of each member of the band in a sea of unknown people. Detail driven, he is brutally honest and spotlights the trivial and the tragic, and it fuels a vulnerable connection with us all.
The title of Wilder Maker’s newest album is Zion, to be released on July 13th by Northern Spy Records. This isn’t their first use of the name. Back in 2004, Birnbaum wrote a song with the same title. Recognizing its obvious importance, I looked it up, and after reading and researching the slippery slope of Google, I decided that the Zion definition was best expressed as the afterlife, or the world to come. As the album title and concept, I made a point to listen for an intricate web of connections laid carefully for exploration.
Beginning with the album opener, “Closer to God”, the tie-in is clear. Full of lyrical poetry describing the brazen New York City life, the song expresses the beauty of a starry sky while contradicting it with stumbling on crap in a freight elevator, all simultaneously happening as we march to our final days. “Closer to God” provides a laser focus on the idea of the trivial and the complex. Maturing while we shift through the day to day, through work and mental escape, life moves without deviation toward our final breath, thus we come “Closer to God”. The song balances Gabriel’s speedy spewing of long-form songwriting with the expressive instrumental pauses led by a cascading guitar. He describes the adventures of life in the city while emphasizing its potential path to demise, accompanied by a series of twisty guitar riffs and choruses of “Amen”. Complicated lyrically and musically, it begs multiple listens to appreciate its intricacies and carefully placed nuances. I was fortunate enough to see them perform this new song at Stopover, they were expressive and connected to their instruments in a way which was mesmerizing.
The second tune, “Impossible Summer”, adds more fuel to the idea of questioning life and the unavoidable progression toward Zion. Gabriel’s songwriting magnifies his inability to make sense of it all, and Katie’s vocals add a softness to the heady lyrics. Birnbaum describes the song’s essence…
“It was hot in Brooklyn and I didn’t have air conditioning,” he explains. “I was in love. And after digging myself into an enormous financial hole I had to have a reckoning with what a man was, and if I was one, at least in the way that I was supposed to be. The manhood thing became a fixation for me, and I spent a lot of time watching men around me in the city and wondering how they came to exist, where their confidence came from — and how I could have come this far without ever learning any of that.”
With a complicated instrumental evolution and haunting vocal work, “Impossible Summer” stands as a masterpiece on the album. This tune hints at the style of one of my favorite bands, Grizzly Bear. Despite the soothing, swirling sound, the lyrics focus on the harsh reality of facing doubts and fears. The track ends with an unfolding realization or confession, “I tried so hard, I tried too hard, to be perfect and I’m not…”
“Women Dancing Immortal” reflects Birnbaum’s healthy obsession with Paul Simon, written in a similar tone and style. It references being awake in Zion, on repeat. Intricate guitar work reflects his intimate lyrical expressions, both highlighted by sing-song background harmonies and echoing synth additions. The tune is catchy and at over 9 minutes long, it provides a shiny sound among the heavier songs of the rest of the album.
“Drunk Driver” begins with a steady repeated strum of a few guitar strings, while long keyboard holds emphasize Katie Von Schleicher's whispering, haunting vocals. The song expresses a personal breakdown in the midst of a casual gathering in a bar. Slipping into an impending brokenness, it builds with instrumental crescendo and reaches an eerie climax of the chorus. Startling and frightening, the actions around the breakdown continue without notice, and the band just plays on. It focuses on a very complex personal experience in the midst of the mundane and the music aptly shifts to communicate how tilting that can be.
A bluesy addition to the album, “Gonna Get My Money” is a defiant and strong statement for the need to succeed. It ends with a saucy saxophone solo which comes to a blasting scream for emphasis. “Multiplied” is the shortest track and the most simple in delivery. Using a single shaker and guitar, the band harmonizes throughout. Expressing choral religious overtones, there is a repeated phrase holding importance, “I will go to sleep, and wake on the other side, of all I know”.
Beginning with an off-kilter rhythm and Gabriel’s echoed vocals, “Cocaine Man” narrates a story of the struggle with love and longing. Despite its cloak of heaviness and strain, the song ends the album with a luminous musical world wind of sound, quite uplifting. It leaves the album listener with a bit of hope and optimism. The song hints at the possibility of experiences repeating themselves, but perhaps with different results.
Zion is genre-defying due to Wilder Maker’s ability to cross styles and create their own sub-genres of psychedelic, indie, folk, and rock. The album is packed with musical experimentation done well, all connected by an overall theme of mirrored self-exploration and seeking out life’s purpose before we walk through the door of the afterlife. With wide-ranging musical influences, the album can be appreciated by many. At times the lyrics can be troubling, sorrowful, and soul searching, but they are well-balanced with soothing musical composition. Each song makes a connection with a part of what we all experience as humans. Therefore, the album speaks as a truthful eyewitness to life’s up and downs and the yin and yang. Their music finds the extraordinary in it all. My exploration was similar to the intense studying of a classic novel for an AP exam, this album needed a thorough examination and multiple listens.
Wilder Maker is a band for the lover of weighty lyrics and instrumental skill and spontaneity. Like the difficult task of personal growth, inquiry, and study, Zion takes time to listen to and truly appreciate. For the true music lover, I suggest it is time well spent.