How do you follow up a well-received album of ragged, messy indie rock? Why, with a sprawling, dystopian epic, of course.
When Wolf Parade released their debut full-length, Apologies to the Queen Mary in 2005, it came as a shock to those of us who had followed the band's development over the course of two years and three EPs. While undoubtedly one of the year's best, the album found producer and humble rodent Isaac Brock filing down the sharp points of Wolf Parade's once ragged sound before coating it with a layer of studio sheen. Essentially, he took a band whose self-released EPs bore more than a passing resemblance to early Modest Mouse and helped them craft an album that felt much closer to -- you guessed it -- late-period Modest Mouse. Now, none of this is to say that Brock did the band a disservice in producing Apologies -- far from it. On repeated listens it became quite clear that a wider sonic palette and crisper production were exactly what the songs needed. Still, the relatively clean-cut Apologies to the Queen Mary left us wondering whether the band might continue on the same trajectory and if so, what an even more polished Wolf Parade record might sound like. Could the Montreal four-piece be just one "Float On" away from mainstream success?
At Mount Zoomer answers this question, definitively and the response is likely to catch fans off-guard yet again. From the opening notes of "Soldier's Grin", it's clear that Wolf Parade have finally ceded what ground remained to their pop instincts, commencing the album with the most accessible tune of their career. Low synth croaks trade off with jangly power chords while a bouncy keyboard melody weaves in and out of the spaces in between. "In my head is a city at night / Static age with the rush and the lights," guitarist Dan Boeckner sings as spacey synths take off in the foreground and drum rolls tumble below. Sure, it's essentially a gussied-up dance punk tune but it's an exhilarating ride of a song nonetheless, with the broad strokes and driving momentum of the verses plowing headfirst into the shouted chorus of "And what you know can only mean one thing / Rooted to the place that you sprang from."
But then, all of a sudden, something strange happens.
Two minutes into the nearly five-minute-long song, the band abruptly hits the brakes. As the tempo slows to a crawl, the synths scatter off in different directions and choppy riffs give way to proggy noodling. "And I rode / Horse-shaped fire / Dragging stereo wire," Boeckner sings wistfully. "And we rode / Chemicals on / 'Till the breaking of dawn." Slowly but surely, an underpinning piano melody starts to build, eventually exploding into a bouquet of spiraling guitars and crashing symbols. Before you know it, we're back at the chorus, though this time around the band tears into their instruments with unfettered ferocity. Guitar, synth, bass and drums all land on the beat, slamming into the ground at terminal velocity. Boeckner yells just to be heard over the racket, stretching each word out to its breaking point. Finally, at just past four and a half minutes, the song buckles under its own weight. As the other instruments disperse, the synths blast off toward the stratosphere, leaving behind little more than a swirling cloud of feedback.
Needless to say, "Soldier's Grin" is a huge step forward for Wolf Parade. Dense and complex yet undeniably catchy, the song's epic composition fulfils the promise that the band's previous releases have hinted at. Luckily, it's not the only such moment to be found on Mount Zoomer, though it is one of the most immediately gratifying. Unlike Apologies to the Queen Mary, which often felt more like a singles collection than an album, Mount Zoomer begs to be approached as a unified whole. This proves to be a double-edged sword, however: while Zoomer's narrative arc and sonic explorations leave the listener with considerably more to chew on, its victories are harder-fought than those on the comparatively accessible Apologies.
Lead single "Call It a Ritual" serves as the perfect example. A piano-driven march written for saloons of the future-past, the song seems more concerned with furthering the plot than serving up catharsis. "Well into the desert we must go / So into the desert we go / Call it a ritual," keyboardist Spencer Krug sings in his trademark, vaguely creepy tone over a staccato piano line and unobtrusive organs. Barring a few detours, the song doesn't go much of anywhere during its brief runtime, though it seems like that's exactly the point. "Call It a Ritual" feels like a journey through a dusty wasteland and before you know it, we've arrived at our destination, "Language City".
Sounding more like a classic Wolf Parade formulation than any song heard thus far on our journey, "Language City" finds Dan taking the wheel again, guiding us through the urban wilderness with only a guitar, a synth and a steady 4/4 beat to light the way. Language City, we're told, is not a pleasant place and at the chorus, Boeckner stops to observe, "All this working / Just to tear it down" -- a line that nicely summarizes the album's most prominent theme. Eventually, the band picks up the pace and you get the feeling that our protagonist is fleeing. "Oh the ringing telephone / Is nowhere around," he laments before the reprise, later adding, "We are not at home / We are not at home."
In case you hadn't already noticed, At Mount Zoomer is a far more lyrically evocative record than its predecessor, though this is likely by necessity. The album builds on some of the themes explored on earlier songs like "Modern World", though this time around, we're treated to detailed vignettes rather than vague sketches. Taken as a whole, the album seems to detail a journey through a dystopian near future -- a post-peak oil nightmare, if you will. Scattered throughout the album are the remains of our unsustainable past: crumbling cities, worthless artifacts and newly antiquated technologies. The album's protagonists find themselves sifting through these pieces for meaning, caught in a futile attempt to reconnect with a world that no longer exists.
Who's to blame for our plight? Midpoint and album highlight "California Dreamer" posits a few theories. Despite its Beach Boys-referencing title, the Spencer-fronted song isn't quite as sugary sweet as you might expect. "California dreamer / Tell me why did you go / I carved your ever fading figure / Into the ever dying snow," Krug sings over the steady clop of closed hi-hat hits and palm-muted plucks. The song simmers at this pace for a good minute before finally boiling over on the chorus, at which point a fantastic, spiraling organ line emerges. "And I think I might have heard you on the radio / But the radio waves were like snow," Krug sings, sounding both desperate and delirious. From this point on, the song leaves restraint by the wayside, steadily building up steam in the form of crashing cymbals, burly guitars and furiously pounded organ keys. When Krug sings, "This city doesn't belong to you anymore / California/Dreamer", at the song's close, it sounds like a rebuke against Hollywood celebrities and Silicon Valley execs alike.
Lyrically speaking, "The Grey Estates" is one of the album's most straightforward songs and one of its best, with bouncy, carnival organs soundtracking lines like, "So let the needle on the compass swing / Let the iron in your heart's blood ring / Strike up the band as the ship goes down / And if it's loud enough/It will erase the sound / Of one hundred thousand sad inventions / Let them rot inside the grey estates." While "The Grey Estates" sounds like Dan's work, Spencer soon gets his turn to shine as a lyricist on the sparse, confessional "An Animal in Your Care". Backed by little more than a guitar for most of the song, Krug winds his serpentine voice around the lyrics, which stand as some of the album's most emotionally nude (for example, "You will remember me most by my funeral").
Just as Mount Zoomer kicks off with an ambitious track, so does it end with a bang: the nearly 11-minute-long "Kissing the Beehive". Wolf Parade have been criticized for the Spencer-Dan-Spencer-Dan vacillation that seems to dictate the sequencing of their releases and admittedly, the band's adherence to this format can sometimes feel a little contrived. As if to address these critiques, "Kissing the Beehive" finds the two vocalists trading off seamlessly throughout the course of the track. A winding epic, the song abandons verse-chorus-verse for a series of seemingly disparate passages, which are woven together with deft skill. There are fairly straight-ahead bits that wouldn't feel out of place on Apologies, there are keyboard-driven proggy codas and there are funky post-punk segments, all charted by the ebb and flow of crashing cymbals. At just past the seven and a half minute mark, the song grinds to a halt, only to be reborn seconds later as a hulking beast comprised of squealing guitars and Krautrock keyboards. The song manages to live on in this fashion for a few more minutes before finally giving up the ghost in an explosive finale.
Clearly, At Mount Zoomer is a sprawling, ambitious album and in many ways, it feels like the perfect counterpoint to the casual charm of Apologies to the Queen Mary. Unfortunately, this also means that Zoomer is nowhere near as accessible as Apologies and will almost certainly confuse and frustrate any Wolf Parade fans who come to the table looking for instant gratification. Those who do stay, however, will find a rich, expansive work to dig into, a clear statement of purpose from a band fighting against its own instincts in order to push forward. While Mount Zoomer is not likely to stand as Wolf Parade's definitive statement, it does represent a bold step in a new direction and gives us a good idea as to where the band is headed: anywhere but the mainstream.