Music

Wild Beasts: Present Tense

Wild Beasts pushes its sound further away from the high-wire theatrics of its early records to create another indispensable album in a catalog quickly becoming one of rock's most distinctive.


Wild Beasts

Present Tense

Label: Domino
US Release Date: 2014-02-25
UK Release Date: 2014-02-24
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Artist website
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"With us, the world feels voluptuous", warbles Hayden Thorpe on Present Tense opener "Wanderlust", and he's not kidding -- the track feels as supple as blushing flesh, all sultry stare and come-hither curves. Wild Beasts, in a pop landscape so routinely hypersexualized it makes fucking sound as transgressive as a block of mild cheddar, specializes in making the rumor of sex freshly thrilling, mysterious, even threatening. The band's secret is restraint: it knows implication is always more alluring than vulgar literalism, the tease or the chase almost guaranteed to be better than the moment you actually indulge. That idea is Present Tense's musical manifesto, as well, and it guarantees the album tightens its hold with repeated listens, all its delayed gratification and feints away from climax better to keep you under its thumb.

Present Tense follows the template of Wild Beasts's last record, Smother (2011), in privileging spare synth-laden arrangements over the high-wire theatrics of Two Dancers (2009) and Limbo, Panto (2008). Dancers and Limbo saw Thorpe and co-vocalist Tom Fleming making music to match their jaw-dropping, nearly operatic vocals, with big choruses and Chris Talbot's octopus-armed drumming fueling an inimitable blend of chamber pop's high-minded tone and post-punk's visceral impact. Smother pulled back the throttle quickly enough to give many fans whiplash, but it was easy to acclimate to that album's slow-burning beauty, the palpable and often menacing ache strewn across it like a handful of dirt on fresh snow. Present Tense pushes the band further into electro-rock territory, and where Smother used synths to provide clean-keyed atmosphere and melody, the synth textures on Present Tense are equally likely to beef up the band's low end and add a welcome dose of scuzz to these songs. "Wanderlust" rumbles like a monstrous, empty belly; the bridge of "Sweet Spot" sees its synths reduced to shreds, perfectly placed percussive bursts with the texture of something caught in the throat.

That feeling, a little phlegm in the back of your mouth, a hint of the ugly profaning an otherwise pristine and smoothly functioning machine, extends across Present Tense. Of course, contrary to what your priest may have told you as a child, it's nice to feel a touch profane. So, when Fleming's baritone hits you in "Nature Boy" with a line like, "Your lady wife 'round his lips / The thing she said she'd never do / A little fun for me and none for you", the discomfort you might feel comes laced with a heady and dose of the illicit, a masculine aggression made more appealing by the way the music surrounding it cloaks the threat of domination in a lush, unapologetically pretty arrangement. Talbot's insistent beat and the pulsating synth beneath it inches the song toward a typically male rudeness, but it never tips its hand entirely. It's a masterful display, and only one example on an album full of them.

For a record so concerned with the physical, Present Tense makes the strange -- though not to say ineffectual -- decision of minimizing Talbot, one of the best rock drummers playing today, even further than on Smother. At times, he's relegated to seeming like a human 808, with songs like "Wanderlust" and "Sweet Spot" setting their beats in the first few bars and letting them remain unchanged, as if on loop, throughout. This insistence does work, and the repetition propels the songs into a sort of carnal, hypnotic space. But it's difficult not to miss the way Talbot, as on Two Dancers's "This Is Our Lot", can make a beat at once inventively complex and perfectly economical. Still, he finds ways to work within Present Tense's more constrained palate—the evocative rattle he brings to "A Dog's Life", less "a trick" as Ian Cohen of Pitchfork has it than simply knowing how to operate a drumstick, adds a brilliant sense of decay to a song that finishes on an image of death. That cohesion, the way Wild Beasts can't seem to play a bum note or place a single syllable in the wrong verse, makes Present Tense one of the most quietly exhilarating albums in recent memory, and all the more so for using its evocative power to unsettle and seduce in equal measure.

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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