Reject The National Average: Retrospective - Wild Beasts, 'Limbo Panto'
Posted on Friday, 10 January 2014 | No Comments
With the release of new single Wanderlust and the announcement of their new album Present Tense earlier this week, Endless Window decided to take a look back to where the Wild Beasts story started - their challenging, provocative debut Limbo, Panto.
Even at its commercial peak - think Oasis claiming Britain as their own in 1996, Suede convincing Virgin Megastores to briefly re-brand themselves as Head Music in honour of their imminent fourth album in 1999, the mega-bucks reunions of Blur and The Stone Roses and the seemingly unstoppable financial juggernaut of the Arctic Monkeys machine - the appeal of indie rock has lain inside its limitations. Rather than asking for technical brilliance, technological breakthroughs or aesthetic immaculance (although many of the best bands to have come from indie - the Radioheads, the MBVs and the Stereolabs of the world - have boasted those in abundance), it asked just for a good dollop of passion, sweat and reality. From its roots in the dank eighties, where punk and post-punk where running out of steam, on through various new movements and iterations and peaks and troughs in popularity, it has thrived as an ultimately utilitarian music form, a place (in theory at least) for the working and middle classes to pick up some guitars and make up a great racket.
That's because even for the lucky few who hit the big time, they've had to ascend from bottom of the scene up. Whatever else has been going on, indie has survived as something that goes on in cramped pub basements, in sticky-floored provincial nightclubs where the drinks flow cheaply and the boys and girls circle the room waiting for fresh meat, in typo-littered fanzines and blogs (ahem), on records made with no time and no money but made all the same, in discreet little pockets and circles and cliques wherever the need for something more broken and more human than the norm is felt. The indie musician is perhaps less artist than artisan, but if so they are labouring to provide a rote function whilst injecting beauty and magnificence into the process all the same. Within each minor variation of the form can lie a universe of ideas and emotions - but only if it's done with care and purpose. When indie music is at its worst though, it's just more meaningless product that, due to its implicitly and explicitly designation as a source of the alternative, actually alienates the misfitting and the outsiders even more cruelly than anything else by snatching their method of communication and smashing it up.
Such was the situation, I would argue, in 2008. British indie, to the minimal extent it could still be described as such, was in a desperate state. In the wake of the attention given to the dreary Clash cast-off riffings of The Libertines and the ongoing media crush surrounding Pete Doherty - very much the thick man's smart man - the foot soldiers of the industry had been sent out to crawl the boozers of Camden in search of something similar to fill the void, and when even the original thing was as dull and conservative as The Libertines, the copies unsurprisingly turned out to be very thin gruel indeed: the fag-end of Britpop might have thrown up its fair share of horrors, but this was a time when acts as charmless as The Kooks and Razorlight (a band whose only interest arrives from their unusually rapid ascent to fame and subsequent plummet back to the toilet scene, and the resulting mind-melt of a solo album) actually thrived and prospered for a while. The musical language had become even more narrow and backwards-looking, and as for the politics...well, even at Britpop's bloke-ish nadir, the music was rarely as unwelcoming of anything outside of plain heteronormative maleness as this. While indie has never had a shortfall of white, heterosexual men, bands like The Pigeon Detectives or The Teenagers (admittedly a French act, but one evidently aiming for and actively targeted at a British indie audience) seemed determined to lock women out of the room, more fuel for a new 'lad' fanbase that actively resented anything that wasn't its lager-swilling, abuse-hurling self.
As someone falling for alternative music hard in the mid-noughties, I remember vividly how unappealing much of the British scene of that time was to me. There was the odd act that boasted a wit and verve that propelled them above the ranks, for sure: A Certain Trigger and The Futureheads remain joyous records, while the intelligence of Franz Ferdinand made them the one truly mainstream band that appealed to me - despite bending over itself to demonstrate how tongue-in-cheek it was, at least Michael made it explicit that, y'know, there were other modes out there, and that's just fine and dandy. But so much of the other stuff was just the lads I hated talking back to themselves and fuck everyone else: wasn't this meant to be the stuff that bookish geeks like me were meant to listen to? So when I made it to a record store, it was inevitably to snap up stuff from bands of the past (so hello to The Fall, The Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, The Smiths) or to current American acts which boasted an intelligence and open-ness that seemed to be totally absent from indie rock on these shores. Acts like Modest Mouse or The Shins at least didn't see half their audience as actively subservient, at least had some ambition for the music to actually speak for something. It had been made clear that if you wanted something more ambitious than a soundtrack to a nightclub punch-up, then the mainstream of British indie wasn't for you.
Enter then, Wild Beasts, four lads from Kendal (the hometown also of the other great outlier of noughties indie, the mighty British Sea Power) who were unquestionably an indie rock band, but unquestionably playing from a completely different hymn sheet to the one everyone else was using. In the years following their debut Limbo, Panto, they've slowly amassed a devoted fan-base, continued to release remarkable music and eventually carved themselves out their own spot in the music scene. In 2008 however they were absolute outsiders, and their debut album was a vital shock to the system largely shunned at the time for the way it pointedly refused to play to the gallery. It's still a surprising, startling album now, but it's hard to describe just how alien this odd little statement from an odd little band was at the time.
The sound itself was aytpical: the jangling, post-Marr guitars were present, but here they came un-distorted, picking out odd little patterns high up on the neck and flirting with a menacing Victoriana - not much in the way of generic rock riffing or barre chording to be found here. The rhythm section was supremely fluid, bouncing rather than stomping, at times almost reaching to a bastardised Tony Allen syncopation. And then, the real trump card: those vocals. The garrulous, swooning baritone of Tom Fleming was one thing, but the astonishing falsetto of Hayden Thorpe was quite another, a thing of great power and tremulous beauty that avoided the pained sincerity of numerous post-Buckley attempts for something with far greater scope, dramatic and furious as well as just pained and romantic. It's that first vocal soar on opening track Vigil for a Fuddy Duddy that confused so many, that led to accusations of hysteria and for some less-open minded listeners to just scoff and dismiss the band out of hand. (Just imagine what they would have made of ferociously camp early single http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgfX8BZfHhc, with its loss-of-virginity-as-apocalypse narrative and manic intensity.)
The other main reason why Limbo, Panto stood out so far from the pack on its release was the real lyrical prowess both Hayden and Tom were already displaying at this point. Instead of your generic indie lad singing about his erection, Wild Beasts sung about love and sex as something other than a basic, late capitalist commodity of 'I, man, want a bit, so you, woman, come over here'. When they sang (and continue to) sing about these things, they acknowledged the complexities, how these desires bleed into other facets of our being or our society. On later albums, we would have clubbing as a sinister mating ritual, mascochistic lusts, pained breakups, but even on Limbo, Panto they were writing about and to masculinity in a way quite unlike any other act out there. The Romantic, lake poet language they employed with its abundance of alliteration was wielded not as thoughtless twee imagery but as a scalpel to cut through the now and uncover the historical patterns still recurring. Take the bewildered monologue of The Club of Fathomless Love, where an older man rails against the promise of his youth and the hedonist lifestyle he has pursed to claim to a masculine identity, finding himself still unable to match up to some unnamed ideal, still trying to desperately stake his place - it's a confrontational and impressive act of characterisation that uses anachronistic turns of phrase to hold a mirror askew to the present. Then there's a track like the gothic horror of His Grinning Skull, a twisted tale of a dead man's fury at his wife's new partner, a fantastical depiction of male jealousy and insecurity (on both sides) that deftly sketches out a world of complexities and sorrows quite beyond the imagination of your typical skinny-jeaned combo.
In its way, the Wild Beasts of Limbo, Panto rescued the idea of steampunk from itself, offering a fictional world where the modern day indie band still dealt in the language and sounds of the music hall (as opposed to the more common understanding of steampunk as twats in stupid goggles, you understand) and had inherited a sense of literary tradition. For an indie scene concentrated primarily around rich Camden dullards and useful Yorkshire idiots, the crazed pantomime of four Cumbrian boys - a pantomime that actually indicted them and their backwards laddishness - unsurprisingly met a lot of resistance. Enough people understood in it, believed in it though for Wild Beasts to wrangle the finances to make a second album, Two Dancers, one that brought their sound into the present day without compromising any of the gothic sensibilities or idiosyncratic identity they had established and an album that helped them slowly find the acclaim and attention they deserved. This isn't to take anything away from this astonishing, brave, overlooked record, an album that embraced the camp as a form of protest and dug deep into the male psyche - and found itself trapped within the horrors it found there.
As I write, their fourth album Present Tense is set for release, a set that looks set to push their sound into increasingly electronic and futuristic areas. Yet listen to the end of lead single Wanderlust, and you'll hear Hayden exclaim "Don’t confuse me with some one who gives a fuck / In your mother tongue, what's the verb to suck?". The anger that drove Limbo, Panto - and make no mistake, at core it remains an incredibly angry statement from a group of consummate outsiders - still fuels the band, even if they no longer finding themselves "smashing [their] heads against a brick wall" as Chris Talbot told me in an interview in 2011. Mainstream indie has, ultimately, had to embrace Wild Beasts, with acts like Everything Everything and alt-J finding commercial success with dumbed-down, complacent copies of their sound that use the basic aesthetic elements - falsetto vocals, hyperactive rhythm sections, a taste for electronics - but ignore the intelligence and heart that make the original such a remarkable act. A phyrric victory perhaps, but there's still something to take away from it: for forty-two minutes in 2008, indie rock became a tool of the outsider once more.