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Indie music is struggling through a fallow period, looking upon an irreversible downward curve. Good bands are still making good albums, of course, but younger genres are producing interesting and exciting music far more consistently.
A rockist music press has been replaced by a more democratic and diverse musical commentariat that openly mocks the hegemonic tastes and habitual mythologising of their predecessors. Four white guys with guitars will no longer be propelled to stardom off the back of a couple of breathless interviews with the NME – audiences have no time for such hyperbole.
The worthwhile bands now work squarely in the margins, and Wild Beasts are one of them. They have released four albums (Boy King is their fifth), and only 2014’s Present Tense has reached the UK Top 10 (no. 13 in Ireland). They tour sizeable venues and make good-to-great albums. They are a popular cult act.
2008’s Limbo, Panto made for an alienating introduction while laying out all that is essential to Wild Beasts as a band. Hayden Thorpe’s falsetto was at its most grating; the lyrics were archaic bordering on esoteric, and, musically, it was driven by a rambunctious, vaudevillian chaos.
Every album since has seen some measure of refinement and growing emotional maturity while remaining distinct to Wild Beasts. Vocalists Thorpe and Tom Fleming project and subvert chauvinistic masculinity, but they have become more comfortable in revealing themselves over time, and recent efforts have seen the band dabbling with synths and embracing a poppier sensibility.
The foursome have become better at distilling their essence more concisely and palatably, and Boy King is a continuation of this process. The songs are less coded, with themes being played out on the surface (song titles include ‘Get My Bang’, ‘Alpha Female’, ‘2BU’, ‘Tough Guy’). Wild Beasts are becoming less wilfully obscure with age, but they are unlikely to become a flagship band for a flagging genre – they remain themselves.
Boy King’s opening five-song run is Wild Beasts at their most obviously Wild Beasts. Carnivorous desire is couched in Thorpe’s velveteen coo; taut grooves, thick, bristling guitars and low frequency synths leave some doubt as to whether he is actually taking the piss, but the braggadocious strut always gives way to (or co-exists with) something more sensual and submissive.
The songs of that initial salvo build to satisfying payoffs after ear-catching detours. Oscillating, analogous synths (‘Big Cat’), slaloming, boogie guitar (‘Tough Guy’, ‘Eat Your Heart Out Adonis’) and purring motorik (‘Alpha Female’) all stand out and are then absorbed in time for the moment of catharsis. It’s a trick Wild Beasts have perfected and can repeat with unerring accuracy.
The spell is broken by ‘2BU’, which is threadbare and goes nowhere. Its rudimentary drum and bass combination draw focus to Fleming’s obsessive lyrics (“I’m in your head / I’m in your dreams / I want your face / I want your skin / I want your name / I want to live”) and does a disservice to drummer Chris Talbot, who does a sterling job underpinning the entire record otherwise.
Fleming leads only two songs and, as usual, he is more confessional and narrative-driven than his co-frontman. He openly yearns for symbiosis and devotion (‘Ponytail’) where Thorpe is coy and prone to hiding behind a veneer of carnality, but he is at his least showy during Boy King’s very best moments.
‘Celestial Creatures’ slowly ticks away in time with a gorgeous serrated guitar riff, gathering momentum and building to a muted epiphany. His unsteady leer nestles warmly with Talbot’s sturdy beat and a backdrop of watery synths before fading in tandem with the outro’s dissipating keys. As a lyricist and a singer, Thorpe lives for tongue-in-cheek maximalism, so it is surprising that he does restrained euphoria so well.
Closer ‘Dreamliner’ is similarly celestial, an atmospheric beauty in the mould of ‘Underbelly’ or ‘End Come Too Soon’. Barring ‘2BU’, it is the album’s most sparing arrangement – you can hear hands moving along the piano’s keys in search of the next chord. It builds in intensity to a climax of voices and keys that never tips over into crescendo but envelops the listener in a warm, ambiguous embrace.
Boy King follows the path laid out by Present Tense while featuring the hardest rocking Wild Beasts to date. It is eclectic but still focused; it’s slightly experimental but values sonic cohesion above all else. Like every Wild Beasts album, it is the summation of their discography but morphs their signature sound and adds a few new wrinkles to the mix.
Indie, and guitar music generally, is screaming out for bands to show the way forward, but Wild Beasts have been steadfast in their refusal to cater to anybody but themselves. Maybe they’re still a bit too unpalatable to make a chart breakthrough and start a popular renaissance, but you sense that they are content as it is. Still, bands like them are essential if indie is to survive or, better yet, remain at all relevant.