[12 October 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Wolf People is a band that walks a fine line between revivalism and timelessness. For one, you could pop Steeple in and, if you didn’t know any better, you might think it a lost psych-rock gem from 1973. On the other hand, their fuzzy, blistering guitar attacks don’t exactly put them at odds with current rock music. So as the riffs come heavy, and the vocals float around, awash in hazy reverb, the question of whether Wolf People are borrowing from their rock forefathers to tread their own ground or just following in their footsteps hangs in the air.
What goes a long way towards answering that question, though, or at least rendering it moot, is the level of execution on Steeple. After stateside audiences were introduced to this British rock band through Tidings, the singles collection from earlier this year, the band’s new, and first, proper album finds them building on all the promise their last collection put on display. The guitars here chug just a little harder, songs rumble a little deeper, and the percussion drives it all forward with a grooving propulsion.
While Steeple provides a more unified sound, with songs often melding together into long movements, the band smartly keeps their sense of surprise with them on this record. Where Tidings was exciting for its ability to explore different musical tangents, this new set manages to flow consistently without ever quite settling. The middle of the record is particularly strong, where the wistful melodies of “Morning Born” bloom into blistering rock before exploding in the feedback chaos that is “Cromlech”. These guys always slice with their guitars, but “Cromlech” is the band at its most untethered, guitars shrieking endlessly, drums, keys, and bass seemingly shaking the walls of the studio with their persistent heft. The song leads into “One By One From Dorney Reach”, the funkiest track on the album with snapping guitar riffs spiking behind the smooth curl of Jack Sharp’s voice.
This type of riff-heavy rock, most easily identified as psychedelic, actually shifts subtly through various genres in the hands of Wolf People. There’s just the slightest country twang to “One By One From Dorney Reach”, giving it an extra layer of depth, while songs like “Silbury Sands” (with its foreboding talk of ordinary men) and “Morning Born” tap into the English folk tradition. Sharp and his band, however, manage to borrow from these other genres without ever getting bogged down in them. The stately formalism of English folk gets brushed aside in favor of funky rock riffs, and the twang never slows them down into a loose shuffle.
In the end, it is that tightness the band displays, and the sheer urgency with which they play, keeps them from falling into any sort of ironic send-up of psych-rock. They play it straight and serious here, and the results are both infectious and often affecting. The last two tracks, “Bands of Sweet Dundee Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2” combine to give us both the band’s grandest statement and a fine distillation of their talents. There’s a moody pall cast over the first half, as guitar riffs announce themselves but never form into the sharp edges we’ve seen all over the record, and Sharp wanders over the record vocally, rising and falling at surprising turns. As we shift into “Pt. 2”, though, the guitars pick up, the drums start thumping all the harder, and the band tightens up those riffs into a finely controlled, but no less volatile, guitar onslaught.
The song doesn’t quite reach for the rafters the way, say, album standout “Tiny Circle” does—which, by the way, features the funkiest flute riff you’ll ever hear—but instead the song stays tight and drifts off into atmospheric notes before it ends. It’s another side of their spacious rock, one that doesn’t need to expand to every corner of the room to win you over. In nine songs, and 43 minutes, Wolf People execute all their strengths with a near-perfection. The vocals may get lost in the shuffle from time to time, but when you can crank out the riffs these guys can, and shape them into pretty much any kind of rock song you want, that’s a small trade-off in the end. Tidings was a fine introduction to a promising new band, but Steeple is a fully formed statement of principles from a band that’s taking all that baggage—of all the riff-heavy rock that came before them—and proving they have their own firm, fresh grip on the genre, and they’re not letting go anytime soon.