Shriek (City Slang)
Result: 4.2 / 5.0
Baltimore duo Wye Oak saw huge success with their third album Civilian, an LP that propelled them into the stratospheres of the ‘alternative folk’ mainstream. But that was three years ago, and a lot can happen in three years. Upon the release of Civilian Jen Wasner and Andy Stack toured extensively and then took some time out. Stack moved to the other side of the US, while Wasner remained in Baltimore and, to all intents and purposes, it seemed that Civilian would be Wye Oak’s glorious swan song. But as things turned out, this was not the case. If anything, the distance between Wasner and Stack proved the genesis of a radical musical change and the result of this change it Shriek.
The musical roles in the band have now changed; Wasner, who uniformly played guitar has now switched to the bass and Stack, previously providing the low-end via his drum kit mounted keyboard, has now upped his register and provides the melody lines to the songs. This change in dynamic is stark and permeates Shriek from beginning to end.
The album starts as it means to go on with opening track ‘Before’ beginning with a synth refrain reminiscent of mid level Kraftwerk before Wasner’s bass punches in with a panging, almost funky groove. If ever here was untrodden musical territory for Wye Oak, this is it. But the skewed instrumentation does something unexpected, and that is to bring Wasners rich vocals right to the forefront of the music, something that can only be a good thing. The breathy delivery of the title track and the bouncing melody bring home a more mature sound that sees the folksy-bluesy past being abandoned in firm favour of a brave new pop sensibility. Before the cries of ‘sell out!’ begin, it must be said that Shriek is certainly not a ‘pop’ album, the quirky edginess of Wye Oak’s previous output is ever present. ‘The Tower’ synth-stabs its way through an off-kilter beat and operates in much the same way as their 2012 one-off track ‘Spiral’, and listening back to that, it seems as though their progression was already underway even then.
Album stand-out ‘Glory’ delivers a frenetic, but pitch perfect balance of melody and rhythm, super-charged with Wasner’s soulful vocals. It’s definitely a track that switches lanes to a more ‘radio friendly’ pace, but it’s still unmistakably a Wye Oak track, shaded with self-reflectiveness and buzzing with cerebral energy. ‘Despicable Animal’ is a mellow lull towards the end of the album and has an improvisational quality that could sit comfortably alongside Civilian‘s ‘Dogs Eyes’. As the album closes, the flourish of the feedback laden ‘Paradise’ amps the tone of the album through the roof with its electrified rhythm and contrasting harmonised breaks. Wye Oak have tucked away one of the best tracks on the album, nestled in the middle of what would have otherwise been a pretty down tempo run of tracks at the end. Album closer ‘Logic Of Color’ could almost be taken from a John Hughes film soundtrack, but it sits as a playful end to Shriek and once again shows off Wasner’s matured and confident vocals.
Wye Oak have delivered a bit of a curve ball with Shriek which may well have all the hardcore Civilian fans grumbling, but any complaints are unfounded. Shriek is an example of a band that has gone through a process of change and experimentation and who have come out the other side with enthusiasm and a renewed confidence. The new formula may not work every single time, but when it does, something truly enthralling happens.
Shriek is out on 28 April on City Slang.