It’s 7:30 on a Saturday night, and I’m in the kitchen hunched over the groundwork of a stir-fry. Flouncing its way out of the slightly tinny hi-fi stacked on top of the fridge is Wild Beasts’ debut album, Limbo, Panto. The second track, “The Club of Fathomless Love”, to be more precise. Jarring stabs of guitar dart out of the speakers, intercepted in passim by languid twangs of bass, the combined backdrop to a one-man vocal theatre. Hayden Thorpe’s unavoidable falsetto, like a twitchy, hyperactive version of Sparks’ Russell Mael, writhes, wriggles and whinnies like a bloodthirsty beast anchored to the turf.
A housemate of mine walks into the room, and immediately screws up her face, her senses demonstrably affronted as if by some foul, offensive aroma. I am cooking, after all.
“Is that your music?” she asks, as though some unidentified intruder might have forced their way into our abode to sadistically subject us to their every musical whim.
“It’s a CD I’m reviewing, yeah.”
“It’s horrible,” she declares.
A few minutes later, another of my housemates enters and I wait for him to pass unfavourable judgement on the soundtrack to my dinner.
“Hey, I like this music,” he beams. “What is it?”
Which is pretty much a roundabout way of explaining that Wild Beasts are your archetypal Marmite band, as likely to inspire both hatred and devotion as a music critic is to namedrop a certain brand of spreadable yeast extract in a review of a particularly divisive record. And as inventive as the quartet’s instrumental arrangements can be, I don’t think it would be simplifying matters to suggest that it’s Thorpe, in particular, that naysayers have a problem with. Operatic, theatrical and either compellingly or repellently—depending on where you stand—unusual, the vocalist-cum-bassist is the most widely employed but also more potentially dissentious of the band’s trio of singers. Seriously, if you’re one of those people who find Muse’s Matt Bellamy a little over-the-top, an entire year’s output from a bargepole factory wouldn’t equip you with the means to go anywhere near Thorpe’s histrionics.
If you can stomach it, you’ll be less hooked than enveloped in an impossibly extravagant, luridly flowery reimagining of 21st century Britain, booze-fuelled city centre brawls and rain-sodden football terraces not dispensed with but transformed into features of a Wildean world in which the everyday and mundane find reprieve as objects of poetic decadence and mysticism. Limbo, Panto in this respect substantiates both halves of its title, the halfway house between two polars—normality and the sublimely ridiculous—that finds an outlet in the extravagant, exaggerated but forever tongue-in-cheek pantomime of its unlikely young creators.
To expand, we have “Woebegone Wanderers”, in anyone else’s hands an anthem about how crap their football team is. In Wild Beasts’ own capricious fingers, it becomes a tragicomic lament about the travails of lower league sport, with “unstable stands aflush with fans / Pilfered pies and pints in wobbly hands” the lyrical realisation of what in reality is just a ground full of shouting (mostly) men.
This creative reinvention of the recognisable or familiar typifies Limbo, Panto. “The Club of Fathomless Love”, for instance, channels the macho mindset of an young male eager to look good while exuding bravado—a familiar dichotomy to all too many of the men folk who clog up Britain’s city centres of a Friday night, but it’s never surely been expunged in this way before. Thorpe sees a man of blustering masculinity (“I’ve rallied and rucked and rouble-roused have I not?”) as well as apparent insecurity (“I’ve shorn and I’ve sheened and I’ve Brylcreemed have I not?”) who might have had an entirely different outcome (“As a boy I had bowl-cut brilliance that could carve up any conundrum / But dunno how that could have been”).
“Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants”, meanwhile, is similarly familiar in its subject matter (making the most of life before it’s over) but, if that title hasn’t already given it away, equally unconventional in its execution, tangling up its tale in sinful misadventure and ghostly visitations. That the song comes with peculiarly danceable disco stomp (Thorpe’s falsetto still intact, of course) by this point isn’t the least bit surprising.
Given their debutant status, youthful pluck and evident ambition, one wouldn’t be surprised if Wild Beasts didn’t always succeed in reining their eccentricity to achieve complete coherence. But what’s impressive is just how rare missteps are on Limbo, Panto. There are bewildering moments, true, but not once does the record descend into affectation, which would have been a convivial trap for four young men of such obvious flamboyance and ability.
No small part of this palatability resides in the accessibility of the arrangements beneath the obvious focal point of Wild Beasts attention-grabbing vocal triptych. It’s hardly structurally prosaic verse-chorus-repeat material, but the straining braggadocio belies an effortless—often effortlessly simple—melodicism. True, the most triumphant expression of this is when Thorpe steps aside to allow bassist Tom Fleming’s smooth tenor—somewhere between a more pronounced Morrissey and Elbow’s Guy Garvey—to take charge on “The Devil’s Crayon”. But even on the deliciously feral mating dance of “She Purred, While I Grrred” or willfully kitsch “Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants” there are shimmering licks cued to perfection and a the kind of exuberant but measured rhythm section required to keep Thorpe’s bedlamite wriggling in step.
If Limbo, Panto had spluttered and faltered in its attempts to portray the all-to-familiar in macabre floridity, we’d still have commended their ambition. As it is, Wild Beasts’ debut takes masterstrokes in its stride, as considered and calculated in its polyrhythmic textures and it is breathtakingly fresh in its approach. Attention-seeking its theatricals may be, with Wild Beasts surely the most captivating new band around, its attention we should be happy to bestow.
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// Notes from the Road
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