Embrace the Strange
Wolf Eyes have been confounding eardrums for nearly two decades with their dizzyingly abstract brand of noise rock. If these descriptors sound a bit off-the-wall, they should: this band’s work is not intended for the faint of ear. However, Wolf Eyes’ newest release, Untertow, is perhaps even more esoteric than its predecessors, as its shrill timbres, lack of rhythmic pulse and spine-chilling atmospheres will perplex delicate musical palettes.
The trio of Nate Young, John Olson and Jim Baljo have never attempted to streamline their music in order to appeal to a wider audience, boasting a combined discography of well over one-hundred, highly experimental, noise records. However, “accessible” is a relative term. For example, the collective’s previous LP, I Am A Problem: Mind In Pieces, could be considered accessible compared to its 2017 descendant. While the album did work to craft an irregular, tonally bereft sound to rival that of legendary noise composer Merzbow, it also featured memorable guitar hooks, metric order and a decent dosage of vocals. These less abstruse qualities made it a decent entry point for less savvy noise listeners into the band’s rather dense catalog.
Undertow, however, does not follow this trend. From its onset, Wolf Eyes establish the album’s impermeable walls of sound. The eponymous album opener picks things up on a deeply unsettling note, with its blend of eerie, cacophonic textures. A steady, repeating bassline provides a tenuous rhythmic anchor that helps us navigate through the song’s perilous tonal landscape. The next track, “Laughing Tides,” offers no such comfort. Its sparse soundscape is comprised of only periodic, high-pitched screeches and synth stabs — both of which are dissonant enough to rival a horror movie soundtrack. And the subtle, yet haunting, laughter heard during the song’s opening merely adds to this sense of foreboding. “Texas” takes this disquiet and adds some body, introducing a medley of rich, new sonic textures such as fluttery woodwinds and pulsing guitars. Unlike the previous track, “Texas” possesses a certain rhythmic pulse that resembles a slowly-beating, demented heart. Wolf Eyes’ approach often feels like a revival of the abstract Musique Concrète practice, as it frequently disregards the musical laws of melody, harmony, rhythm and meter in order to shape a sound that is highly organic and freeform, constructed via the seemingly haphazard mix of recorded, industrial sounds. In fact, the mechanical sound sources and steady, looping quality of “Texas” make it eerily reminiscent of Pierre Schaeffer’s famous recordings of trains from the ‘40s, Étude aux chemins de fer.
“Empty Island” provides some brief, though not entirely comfortable, respite. It presents a laid-back soundscape of acid-induced electronica, employing swishing synth ricochets, pleasant bass drones and a surprisingly consonant repeating guitar figure. If it weren’t for the brief bits of exceedingly chromatic guitar soloing, this would actually make for a rather comfortable listen!
The album ends on “Thirteen.” In terms of dramatic resonance, the closer certainly doesn’t disappoint. It opens to a strikingly morose setting that is populated with affected brass figures, subtle static, wailing synth drones and monotonal vocal segments that resemble spoken word poetry. Lines such as, “I count every deceit / as they repeat / like receipts of doom,” work to complement the song’s unnerving tonal quality — albeit in rather corny fashion. More and more layers are gradually introduced to the mix as the track slowly plods along. Meanwhile, the vocals slowly become drowned in FX, to the point at which the lyrics are completely inaudible by the track’s end. Again, for more traditionally-minded listeners, this might not be a payoff deserving of a near-fourteen-minute auditory excursion. Yet, for those with patience and a strong affinity for sonic experimentation, “Thirteen” is certainly rewarding, taking them on a long, sprawling journey that gradually evolves from sluggish spoken word piece to frenzied avant-garde romp.
This analysis can roughly be applied to the record as a whole. (After all, “Thirteen” does cover nearly half of the record’s near thirty-minute runtime.) Undertow clearly doesn’t aim to appease a wide range of listeners. It blatantly eschews even the faintest semblance of consonance and for this reason it is challenging to the point at which it may be impenetrable to many listeners. However, fans of Wolf Eyes should not worry. They will undoubtedly enjoy it as the band take their avant methods and instill them with an even darker tone. Generally speaking, those who appreciate extreme sonic manipulation in general will enjoy Undertow’s vast web of instrumental textures; although, unfortunately, aside from the dynamic finale, the album’s offerings don’t always evolve much texturally, maintaining rather static soundscapes. Still, Wolf Eyes unique approach to composition is a refreshing reprieve from the increasingly streamlined approach of mainstream music, thus harkening back to a period of radical experimentation.