[1 May 2014]
Like them or not, you gotta give it up for Wye Oak in terms of their sheer artistry and refusal to play it safe. Rather than attempting to lazily replicate 2011’s breakout album Civilian, the Baltimore twosome of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have the pluck to dive into experimentation, accepting the risk that they may fall on their face in the process. With Shriek, the webbing and tethers of Wye Oak’s safety net are severed, that ubiquitous element of modern music and the foundation of the group’s past work—the guitar—kicked to the wayside. In that respect, the album earns its title, evoking notions of a frustrated but declarative shout or a terrified and primal scream that comes with progressing into uncharted territory.
With the guitar’s absence, Wye Oak trades their rustic folk-meets-shoegaze for a canvas of ambient pop. The album throbs and pulsates, dominated by sinuous bass lines, shimmering synthesizer tones and keyboard notes. Wasner’s voice, the lynchpin of the band’s sound, also makes headway, retaining its ephemerality but with a more corporeal sensibility, her husky croon clearer than before in singing discernible lyrics. This shakeup in approach is accomplished deftly, the richness in Wasner’s voice not decreased, and the instrumentation and interesting textures compensating for the lack of guitar, preventing attention being drawn to the six-string’s nonappearance.
Shriek opens with an establishing shot of the altered aesthetic in “Before”, springy keys and a rubbery, supple bass laying the bedrock. Wasner’s vocals advance through the fog that once clouded them with a more precise diction as she sings, “This morning, I woke up on the floor / Thinking I never dreamed before.” It’s a suitable line with which to bookend the song, setting up the protean dream flavor that characterizes the record. The tune expands its synthetic funk with fluttering drums and a futuristic texture before giving way to the title track. Bird chirps and scattershot percussion fade to the back as a higher vocal delivery emerges, curling around the plunging bass like a smoky curlicue. The flow passes meditatively, the samples of the natural world painting a picture of a brook winding through a secluded countryside.
“The Tower” offers an up-down, up-down metronomic rhythm, and Wasner sings hypnotically along with it. Just as it’s about to fade as a predictable and monotonous track, a quirky instrumental interlude arrives at about the 1:30 mark, all crackling and undulating bass, taking on a droning vibe offset by an intensity-building keyboard pattern. The album’s first surging number, “Glory”, comes in next. The track’s drums tease an increased tempo in the first verse, before delivering on the promise in the hook-laden refrain. It’s the first song that leaves a lasting melody in your head, which may be a problem when it arrives four tracks deep. It’s also the first cut that breaks lose, ending with discordant notes jutting out in various directions, like tentacles grabbing out at random.
The next few tracks, starting with “Sick Talk” and running through “Despicable Animal”, employ a motif of contrasting dark verses with transcendent refrains. On “Sick Talk” in particular, the tense verses give way to a fluid melting away sensation in the lilting chorus. “Schools of Eyes” is built around jazzy drum work and whirling effects, as Wasner creates the vacillating moods by trading off foreground and background vocals.
Late in the game, the two most striking numbers arrive in the form of “Paradise” and “I Know the Law”. That they’re placed side by side is another example of the record’s duality. The former dabbles with noise rock and a feeling of dread, built on incendiary screeching feedback and tribal percussion. The latter is Shriek’s most minimal song, a wounded ballad in which Wasner’s aching but resolute voice is front and center. “In order to preserve this life / I have given my life / Precedence over yours,” she sings in biting and direct terms, before the song first dissolves to an echoing fade out, then reemerges with a clamorous din. It probably should have been the record closer, as the finale of “Logic of Color” can’t match the sheer intensity of “I Know the Law”.
All said, it’s clear Shriek is an ambitious work, but is it enjoyable? Yes, but not in the obvious way Civilian was, for there is no song that approaches the immediacy and infectiousness of that album’s title track. There are meandering moments, which creates a problem as it requires your devoted attention, but struggles to keep it at crucial points. Repeated listens, with headphones, are a necessity. Its esoteric nature and personal themes will likely result in it being a cherished cult album without the widespread popularity of its predecessor. And that itself is a laudable course to undertake, all the more so in that it was achieved so precisely.