Wild Beasts - Present Tense - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Wild Beasts - Present Tense

by David Bruggink Rating:9 Release Date:2014-02-24

Since their first album, Wild Beasts have had something special about them. Amid the theatricality and flamboyant crooning of Limbo, Panto was the sound of an astonishingly assured young band, even if they were taking cues from such seemingly incompatible sources as The Smiths and cabaret. There was no shortage of interesting stylistic choices, but tracks like 'Vigil for a Fuddy Duddy,' 'His Grinning Skull' and 'The Devil's Crayon' demonstrated that Wild Beasts were capable of channeling influences from the far corners of rock music into something surprisingly original and moving, and doing it with panache.

With each successive album, Wild Beasts have become capable of greater emotional impact even as their sound has been pared-down and their more frantic impulses reined in. Surely it hasn't hurt that they've drawn from somewhat obscure sources (and there's more inspiration still to be pulled from the graceful beauty of Spirit of Eden and Hats, I'd wager), but they've kept their essential voice intact.

The cover of Present Tense could suggest a musical hodgepodge within, and indeed, the album lacks the overall cohesion of Smother. However, that's hardly a criticism, as the variety of moods explored ensures an engaging listening experience. Early single and first track 'Wanderlust' is more immediate than the Wild Beasts we've grown accustomed to, and sets an incredibly high standard for the songs to follow. There's nary a conventional guitar to be found, and its synthesizers largely consist of faux-human 'oo's and 'ah's - the kind of midi sounds you hit while messing around on a keyboard, and then chuckle and wonder what context they could possibly work in - but they work perfectly, accentuated by a relentless, surprisingly simple drum beat.

Hayden Thorpe's vocals, more honeyed than the days of 'Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyant,' disguise the callousness of the lyrics as the song reaches its sublime peak. As a reaction to the artifice of popular music, apparently written about British bands who pretentiously adopt American accents, perhaps the decision to prominently feature fake voice synthesizers in the song is symbolic. At a minimum, it proves that Wild Beasts are capable of extracting great depth from even the least likely of instruments.

Present Tense also has its fair share of ambient washes, throbbing basses, and palm-muted guitars, but Wild Beasts are clearly separate from the pack of blunt 80s imitators; the album feels less concerned with dredging up styles from past decades than making a unique artistic statement. Even tracks which showcase more overt genre trappings prove that their contemporaries are crippled not by their choice of sound palette, but by poor songcraft. For example, the subtle synth touches of 'New Life,' a contender for the album's best track, wouldn't be out of place on Prefab Sprout's Steve McQueen, but their application here serves to gently enhance the earnest singing of Tom Fleming to stunning effect.

Those who reveled in the spareness of Smother will be glad to know that Present Tense has no shortage of minimalistic beauty and delicate sonic details. The spare, tribal toms and crisp snare hits will be familiar, as will the crystalline guitar lines and expressive piano; each instrument is respectfully afforded its proper space in the mix. Goosebumps-inducing moments, like Smother's 'Loop the Loop' or 'Reach a Bit Further,' are thankfully even more present here, and the album's ebb and flow of energy allows for moments which are powerfully cathartic as well as unexpectedly touching.

The tremendous climax of 'Palace' evokes an electronic version of U2 circa The Joshua Tree, while the intro to 'Pregnant Pause' suggests that a solo piano album by Hayden Thorpe in the style of Paul Buchanan might be highly enjoyable. Often Present Tense seems content just to persist in understated loveliness; tracks like 'Sweet Spot' and 'Daughters' do not cry out for much attention as they deliver their gorgeous vocal melodies and synth flourishes.

After the excellent Smother, I wondered where Wild Beasts would possibly go next, and in particular, how they would maintain their appeal as their sound continued to adapt. The stylistic leaps between albums have gotten gradually smaller, but Present Tense further demonstrates that Wild Beasts are, first and foremost, writers of magnificent songs, no matter what kind of sounds they might choose to work with.

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