Even with all their obvious talent and exceptional output it is difficult to walk away from a Wild Beast’s record and not feel like you were just victim to a remarkable tease. Limbo, Panto (2008) and Two Dancers (2009) were excellent encapsulations of dreamy pop music with a fanciful concept as their backbone. But the Proggy inclinations of Wild Beasts were always somewhat of their undoing. In that their albums conclude too quickly. It is strange to complain about the lack of length with two (three if you count Smother) wonderfully succinct albums, I know. But it is in this awkward anxiousness that the English outfit flourishes—their albums demand attention and this constant anticipation they erupt inside of you almost bullies your subconscious into submission. It is not so much that Wild Beasts do not accomplish enough in the thirty-five to forty minutes they ask of you; they over-achieve so much you half-expect that sixty-plus minutes of music would be a simple task. Smother, a darker, more synth-heavy record does nothing to quell my suspicion this band has yet to reach their peak.
In accordance with Wild Beast’s track-record so far Smother is an album where rewards are reaped through time invested. As probably their least appealing record upon a simple first-glance, Smother beckons for you to examine closer. “I want you to see this/Open the door,” bassist Tom Flemming urges on “Invisible.” While the context of the line lies in the albums Frankenstein (1818) inspired back-story the sentiment remains potent: Smother leaves the entrance cracked for you--walk on through. Inside you will find the same elegant vocal harmonies woven between the eccentric coo of Hayden Thorpe and Flemming’s more traditional croon (he sounds a lot like Guy Garvey.) They have left behind Two Dancer’s chamber-pop leanings in favor of a Pink Floyd meets Steve Reich-ish take on brooding piano pop music. With low, bassy rumbles, uplifting keys and serene effects pedal play—and monumentally less build-up—Smother is certainly more Rock than Prog. But Wild Beasts share a bond for exciting theatrics with someone like a Floyd or a Gabriel-era Genesis. The band has also cited Reich (the pioneer of minimalist composition) as a key influence for Smother along with Mary Shelley’s novel and noise-rockers Fuck Buttons. One could view such a direct outline of inspiration as an admission to a lack of ambition and originality—but that would be foolish. Wild Beasts once again take minor influences and churn out a unique creature all their own.
For all the luscious nooks and crannies Smother offers one to nestle into comfortably (“Bed of Nails’” bass line in particular) it is the record’s engaging lyric sheet and entrancing vocal performances that are most impressive. Thorpe and Flemming once again bypass any negative impact from the heaps and heaps of cheese they lop onto their storylines. Taking a playwright’s care to their composition with a track-list setup more conceptually like a musical than The Wall (1979) Smother is less a "concept record" and more a theater piece. In that when the tunes are so great, the story charming and most importantly the performances convincing it is easy to forget there’s really just a large group of people dancing around, singing a tale to you in fractured moments. Smother flows in a similar fashion presenting snapshots, specific moments in time when emotions peak and condense them into hypnotic pop songs. The first meeting (“Lion’s Share”) an electrifying love affair (“Bed Of Nails”), the betrayal and retribution (“Plaything” and “Invisible” respectively) and the bloody-repentance (“Burning”). The story arc requires an imagination and attention to detail, sure. The onslaught of hooks song after song does not. That is quite tangible.
Wild Beasts have a hefty presence on record and Smother oozes confidence. Without actually ruining the record's storyline --half the fun of listening is dissecting their narrative—I will say that Thorpe and Flemming construct elegant prose to go along with their tempered arrangements. Loosely chronicling a presumably taboo entanglement between a person of importance and someone they happened upon randomly and subsequently laid claim to. “Do I pull you out?/Or do I let you sink?” Thorpe questions in the initial interaction between Smother’s two main characters. Much like Two Dancers Thorpe and Flemming perform roles as opposed to singing lyrics and the record is structured as narrative with a very concrete beginning, rising action, climax and conclusion. Yet there is no pretension to be found within Smother as the songs work just as well in the realm of casual listening—they are extremely pop-savvy. What is truly extraordinary about the album though is the efficiency with which it yanks you into its world and furthermore just how difficult it is to leave once you have entered.
This is never more apparent than on final track “End Come Too Soon.” Where thematically Thorpe accounts his characters' final interaction:“Whose skin would wax on/In the failing light./Who downright danced me/Like a sailing kite” he relays as the piano flutters and drums battle on behind him. Enthralling as his recollection is (at this point it is acceptable to be neck-deep in Smother) it is after he pauses, the delay effects kick in and “End Come Too Soon” swells that you truly grasp the record’s lasting effect. It is not so much a realization that what you just sat through was outstanding (though this will probably happen) but that as the cymbals crash and guitars wail it is Thorpe’s near hysterical rambling of: “End come too soon/It comes too soon” that sticks out the most. Here, there is nothing left to do but sit in the moment, soak up the sky-bound melody and accept the album's eventual finale. Hayden is right. It is too soon. Fortunately you can just press play again. Smother is still a tease, yes. But damn does it feel great being fooled again and again.
2. Bed Of Nails
4. Loop The Loop
8. Reach A Bit Further
10. End Come Too Soon
Wild Beasts are a 4 piece band from Kendal, United Kingdom now based in Leeds, UK. Songfacts reports that Wild Beasts were formed in 2002 in the north western England town of Kendal, by Queen Katherine School students Hayden Thorpe (vocals) and Ben Little (guitar). They originally performed under the name of Fauve, the French term for "wild beast". In January 2004, schoolmate Chris Talbot (drummer) joined, and they changed the band's name to Wild Beasts. The following year another student, Tom Fleming (bass), became a full time member of the band. ... read more