Review Summary: Expansions of the same vision.
Reading and Leeds Festival Performers Series: Episode IV
The genre that is alternative rock can be traced back to the 1980s, with indie-originated bands such as Pixies
, The Cure
, Hüsker Dü
and Sonic Youth
laid down the foundation of the genre, and their formula were translated into a more commercially palpable form in the following decade, thanks to bands such as Nirvana
and My Bloody Valentine
solidify the genre terms, while inventing the subsidiary of alt-rock as well. As a result, it’s not much of a surprise where nowadays alt-rock bands would take inspiration (or ripping them off, depending on who you ask) from the bands mentioned above, and Wolf Alice
is no exception. Despite they expanded their musical formula that was built in their debut album My Love Is Cool
to a more harrowing and experimental side, which created the follow-up Visions of a Life
, it seems like Wolf Alice crew are stuck with their older sound, which is ironic given that this is just their sophomore effort. Despite being limited in their musical formula, that doesn’t mean this effort is less thrilling than its predecessor. In fact, the North Londoners had avoided the typical cliché of creating a sophomore slump, and instead created a promising effort that might define their future.
First of all, the band did an impressive job in terms of songwriting. For instance, the shoegazing-tracks “Heavenward” and “St. Purple & Green” are moving tributes to singer/guitarist Ellie Roswell mourns the passing of her friend and her grandmother respectively, with heart-wrenching lines such as “Yeah, I'm gonna celebrate you forever/And long to see you when it's my turn” (from “Heavenward”) and “You might be changing/But you're still there/And you're still my Nana” (from “St. Purple & Green”), portraying the heartache Roswell experienced prior to the recording. There are eerily relatable moments as well—whether Roswell was hesitating to embrace a new relationship in the synth-laced “Don’t Delete The Kisses” (“Instead, I'm typing you a message/That I know I'll never send”), writing a paean to her non-conformist friend in the upbeat “Beautifully Unconventional”(“She seems to be from the best place in the world/Must be the best place in the world”), losing control in the galloping “Space & Time”, or panicking about death in an airplane in the trip-hop-flavoured “Sky Musings”, Visions of a Life
is undoubtedly a more solid effort, since when compared to their debut, the songwriting of the album has elevated. In short, they have successfully matured in terms of songwriting.
However, the band also proved that they are more than just an alternative rock band who embrace pop convention and grunge angst, as they served up some exciting experimentations. The eight-minute title-track is an exemplary, as it laced with psychedelic shoegazing riffs in the beginning, yet they, later on, cranked up the tempo of the song, into an adrenaline-driving arena rock force with more urgent guitar riffs and machine gun drumming, and withered into an abysmal psychedelia with marching beats, which recalls shoegaze legends Lush
’s similarly long gem “Desire Lines”. The lyrics here are also impeccable as well, with Roswell moaned about existentialism(“The skin on my bones is leather cold/Poisoned my heart beats slow”), death (“I dream of death, its violent breath/I’m caught with my maker in step”), stiff routines (“A nuclear family and friends my own age/I follow the rules, do what it says on the tin”), unreasonable conformity (“People's ideals give me the chills to the bone”), among many undesired things in life. This song alone already proofed that the band is capable to make an extensive sonic rock tapestry that is thrilling, visceral and expansive simultaneously while serving as a fantastic closer to the album. In addition to the enthralling curtain call of the album, Wolf Alice also serves beautiful feedback that recalls MBV in songs such as “Planet Hunter”, the aforementioned “Heavenward” and “St. Purple and Green”, and gentle acoustic ballad in “After The Zero Hour”, they just proved how they could do with more ambition.
In contrast, what the album lack is consistency and stylistic change. For starters, the murky “Sadboy” is a downer, as it was plagued with redundant and dull lyrics and mushy production as if the band just written and record the song in a hurry. The lead single “Yuk Foo” is also a questionable track as well, with Roswell tries to imitate Sonic Youth singer Kim Gordon’s aggressive growl and brash, feminist lyrics, yet ends up replicating the latter’s terrible singing in SY’s A Thousand Leaves
, despite the feral punk edge of the song did evoke the Dirty
-era SY and Pixies
and contemplates brilliantly the generally sorrow sound in this album. What’s more, the wacky, garage-rocking “Formidable Cool” also recalls the worst side of Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star
. On top of that, the sound in the album is quite similar to My Love Is Cool
, as it replicated the dreamy Slowdive-esque sound in the aforementioned “Heavenward” and “St. Purple & Green” from the song “Bros” and “Silk” in My Love Is Cool
, or the feral punk edge in “Lisbon” and “Moaning Lisa Smile” to the feral “Yuk Foo”, as if the band just lack of ideas and then copy and paste their sound, and then crack these tendencies to 11. Although there is nothing wrong for sticking to your musical roots per se, since it can maintain the consistency of your material, that doesn’t mean you should rely too much on them. Unfortunately for Wolf Alice, they ended up having their ambition ill-conceived.
In a nutshell, Wolf Alice painted their darkly beautiful portrait of loss and angst in their sophomore effort, a significant departure from a more joyful My Love Is Cool
, but overall they don’t make much of a difference when it comes to their musical direction and consistency, despite it sounds more enjoyable and cinematic than the previous effort. A promising, exciting yet never satisfying and ultimately quite frustrating effort, that could be perfected with more cohesive songwriting and more ambition. It is good to see that a young band like Wolf Alice tried to innovate their vintage alt-rock formula by showing their maturity and complexity, but that doesn’t mean they should force themselves to stick in the formula that builds them as rock stars. Sometimes, tweaking of the formula can sometimes showcase that an artist is no one-trick-pony, just like UK championing alt-rock chameleon PJ Harvey
did numerously in her two-decade-plus career, which cements her an unlikely icon in British rock music and helps her to win the prestigious Mercury Award twice. (The only artist to do so.)Unfortunately, Wolf Alice just seems to trap themselves in a gold cage of their alt-rock formula instead of stepping out of it like Harvey did in her later works, only to paint the shiny exterior of it with a bleaker colour in Visions of a Life
, as well as making more it larger and expansive. Can they free themselves from such cage and create a more creative and original album in their following career？Only time will tell, at least the judges of Mercury Awards agreed for this album, but I am sure they might need to find the key first and plan for their next move, and this album, in my opinion, is not really the key they are looking for, but a hopeful clue to guide them to be freed from the cage and roam in the music scene.
Space & Time
St. Purple & Green
Visions of a Life