Some English indie bands surge into popularity in their native land and come storming across the ocean with great success. Others fail to gain traction on this side of the Atlantic. For example, the Libertines ripped through England with raucous guitar confections in the early aughts, but for some reason their number 1 UK album didn’t crack the top 100 in the US. It’s not always clear what will rouse the masses in both countries. Wolf Gang, the project of current London resident Max McElligott, is on the rise, having earned plaudits from NME and also garnered mention on the English version of GQ’s “100 best things in the world” 2012 list, where he was also accompanied by the likes of Jon Huntsman (odd), :Emma Willis shooting socks” (odder), and “Summer in the Alps” (is this special to 2012?). Wolf Gang’s album, Suego Faults, recently released in the US, shoots for splendor with the swelling melodic symmetry, full, comforting instrumentation, and falsetto vocals. But does it have enough oomph for US success?
“Lions in Cages” and “The King and All of His Men” exemplify Wolf Gang’s approach to songwriting, the aim of “near symphonic grandeur” discussed in the bio on McElligott’s website. “Lions in Cages”’ begins with an eight-note synth riff and a guitar playing big power chords. The synth climbs, falters, and climbs again; a chorus of backing voices sometimes echoes this progression. Between hooks the instrumentation chugs reassuringly. The bridge keeps rising, things drop out for a second, and then the song builds right back into the multi-layered, falsetto hook—it’s textbook pop construction. “The King and All of His Men” starts with the same cheering bounce and simple synth run. It’s got more edge and works with sparer verses that slowly add instruments, gaining speed and power until the chorus. But the idea is the same: start high, build higher, dangle some emptiness and then hit back with everything in a satisfyingly jubilant ending.
Wolf Gang mixes it up somewhat on the songs that don’t seem as radio oriented. “Where Are You Now” and “Back to Back” rely less on keyboards and more on guitar and bass, employing rapidly funky riffs and some slippery stick work respectively. Dreamier ballads make an appearance—“Midnight Dancers” is over-the-top in the manner of ELO, the title track has piano work that could fit on a Coldplay hit, and everything sweeps majestically.
Wolf Gang has a solid grasp of pop dynamics, but there isn’t much to distinguish the group. McElligott doesn’t have the urgency of other bands shooting for grandeur, like Arcade Fire or M83, and his melodies aren’t as groovy as the psych-pop bands his falsetto sometimes evokes, like Empire of the Sun or MGMT. This exposes his sometimes trite lyrics, like on “Dancing With the Devil,” where he sings: “If you’re the chosen one, how does it feel to be loved by no one / If you’re the number one, where do you run to, can you hide behind the sun?” Suego Faults will likely do better than Jon Huntsman in America, but when stacked up against a good pair of shooting socks or a nice vacation, it’s hard to know what will come out on top.
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// Notes from the Road
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