Their minds may be in pieces, yet Wolf Eyes' latest album represents their most cohesive and accessible work to date.
A quick perusal of the gargantuan Wolf Eyes catalog reveals that the Detroit three-piece aren't complete strangers to mental problems. Aside from their breakout "hit", 2004's Burned Mind, the noise band have admitted to being "Half Animal, Half Insane", have faced accusations that Y'all Must Be Really Mad at Something, have exposed themselves as Always Wrong, have done things Asylum Style (repeatedly), and have spun in their own Wheels of Confusion all the way to their newest record, I Am a Problem: Mind in Pieces. Yet, even with the explicit confession of psychological disorder carried in its title, their first LP for Jack White's Third Man Records is perhaps their least disturbed and fragmented work to date. Its stoned jazz, swarming drones and sloshed punk all boast a cohesion and fluidity lacked by most of the previous entries in their wild corpus, and in their (relatively) more harmonious and less hostile stomping they hint that, maybe, just maybe, the anarcho-schizo-noise-terrorists are finally beginning to rehabilitate themselves.
Unfortunately, this is quickly revealed to be a false hint, since for all its comparative smoothness, finesse and sophistication, I Am a Problem unsurprisingly speaks of serious problems. At first, opener "Catching the Rich Train" is seemingly too relaxed and benign to expose any such issues, dusted languidly as it is in trailing horns, gauzy idiophones and disappearing bass. However, despite its welcoming glow, closer listens detect an unnerving and unsettled undertow, a barely dormant undercurrent of anxiety and dissipation that manifests itself in Young's diluted vocals. His voice is smeared repeatedly across the song's diffuse, lounge-esque bed, falling and rising without any focus, and in its unintelligible and indistinct haze the album's overarching motif of mental breakdown is disquietingly conjured for the first time.
This motif only becomes more overt as I Am a Problem unfolds. During the pounding headache that is "Twister Nightfall", it appears amid watercolored guitars and psychotropic electronics as Young rants, "Your head is swimming / Your head is drowning." The track's swirling distortion and trippy FX emphasize these complaints of mental chaos, engendering a churning soup of psychedelia that strongly reinforces the suspicion he's become an increasingly split, increasingly multiple personality whose irrepressible and irreconcilable parts are at war with each other, creating the kind of decentered bedlam that Spacemen 3 and Throbbing Gristle might have put together if they had ever knocked boots.
Later bad trips expand upon this disturbed groundwork, with "T.O.D.D." being a mantric nightmare that bangs, ferments and simmers in a descent of relentless percussion and overdrive. Its chirping feedback and incongruous samples (e.g. bird whistles) bleed into Young as he appears to groan, "Your psyche is like a doorway / Can't turn back / This place resists." He struggles against the turbulent walls of instrumentation that seethe all around him, but eventually he sinks under their weight as they collapse, burying him under his own cluttered and lawless self.
Testifying to the maturity and accomplishment Wolf Eyes now have in the second decade of their existence, this psychological cluttering is underscored in lots of clever and subtle ways throughout I Am a Problem. For example, in the somewhat less truculent "Asbestos Youth", Young's spoken-word ejaculations are heavily overdubbed and panned, inviting not so much the sense that he is speaking from multiple perspectives and viewpoints, as the sense that there are so many perspectives and viewpoints buzzing around within his skull that it's no longer proper to speak of a he as such, that is, of a "unified" individual with consistent and complementary goals. Moreover, the piece underscores this mental dispersion with the echoing of horns and the directionless floating of agitated guitars, generating a fogged atmosphere of claustrophobia and simultaneously testifying to the band's creative prowess.
However, for everything they've gained production-wise and conceptually since 2013's No Answer: Lower Floors, they've lost a little something of their ferocity and ferality. Things are perhaps just a tad too safe and toned-down on I Am a Problem, since even with its theme of mental disorganization and psychological confusion, the music that accompanies and conveys such a theme isn't quite as vicious and fractured as it might have been in the past. Closer "Cynthia Vortex AKA Trip Memory Illness" and its lurking ambiance are more suggestive than demonstrative of how "Somedays [Young] can't see through the haze", while the thrash-y "Enemy Ladder" is slightly too conventional a punk/hardcore song to really carry home its grim vision of "seven nightmares", "seven days" and "seven fingers". The consequence of this 'scaling back' is that, while the album can be appreciated for its overall unity, it comes just a fraction short of being as creepy and distressing as past installments in the Wolf Eyes epic.
Even so, I Am a Problem is a strong effort and a well-crafted representation of a Mind in Pieces. It may not be as forceful or jarring as a Burned Mind, Human Animal or No Answer, yet it demonstrates a Wolf Eyes branching off in interesting new directions, as well as perfecting the art of plying their noisome trade to serious ideas and issues. In some ways this leavening of their whited-out aggression with jazzy flourishes, psychedelic tropes and primitive rock is actually a good thing, since it may very well help attract the uninitiated and formerly intimidated into their world. Also, it implies that this world might just about be beginning to change for the healthier, the more normal and the "better", and that sooner or later we may witness a rehabilitated Wolf Eyes in our midst, whatever such a "rehabilitated" entity might sound like.