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Wild Beasts Smother
Released 6 May 2011
Producer Wild Beasts, Richard Formby
Label Domino
Length 42:03
Genre Alternative
Website www.wild-beasts.co.uk

Ah, the pitfalls of success. 2009’s Mercury nominated Two Dancers left Wild Beasts with the conundrum which commonly befalls a band when they reach a certain level of critical and commercial acclaim: replicate the formula in the hope of shifting some units or continue to explore and develop, at the risk of alienating the bandwagon jumpers. Wild Beasts, true to their fiercely independent spirit, have, thankfully, opted for the latter option, and the resultant album, Smother, is a revelatory experience, which sees them go above and beyond their previous efforts.

The Cumbrian quartet have hitherto been known for their highly literate, almost vaudevillian art-rock, but on their third full-length album there is a clear sense of progression; the feeling of a band who are moving to a more assured sense of their own identity. The playful rhythms have largely been replaced by moody, glacial beats, in keeping with the album’s introverted nature, and its intense meditations on fear, loneliness and desire. A notable feature is the absence of all but the most subtle guitars, in favour of evocative, fragmented pianos and ambient textures complimenting the vocal theatrics of Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming, which remain consistently the most remarkable feature of this relentlessly innovative group.

Smother is at once a soothing and unsettling experience. Opening track 'The Lion’s Share' typifies this with its insistent synth bass and dual piano motifs which drill themselves into the subconscious. The vocals, as they do throughout the album, interplay brilliantly with the melody, taking the concept of the voice as an instrument to its fullest conclusion, showcasing Thorpe’s remarkable range without resorting to cheap showboating.

Thematically, Wild Beasts mine a rich seam of unease while conversely creating a musical landscape that surrounds the listener like a warm blanket, demanding you lose yourself in its depths. It is a not an immediate album- it takes time and patience; but persevere and you will be rewarded by a collection of songs that seduce, beguile and thrill in equal measure.

The bawdy playfulness which epitomised their earlier work is not completely absent, merely tempered. Smother is an altogether more considered, more mature work, but manages not to come across po-faced. Like its predecessors, it oozes sexual tension, but the energy is that of a darker, gothic, almost predatory lust, epitomised by 'Bed of Nails', where Thorpe namechecks Mary Shelley and Shakespeare, calling on his Ophelia to, "sum me up like an epitaph...when our bodies become electrified." The theme is developed upon in 'Plaything', a tale of voyeurism and submission atop an insidious, repetitive loop, like some kind of deviant Kate Bush.

The crowning glory comes in the shape of the aptly named closing track 'End Comes Too Soon'. Over seven sublime minutes, it rises and falls, soothes and intimidates, culminating in a final, cathartic two minute coda which is among the most painfully beautiful pieces of music committed to record this year, or any year for that matter. As a neat microcosm of the album as a whole, it sums up just why Smother is destined, quite rightly, to dominate the end of year best album lists. A triumph for all concerned.

- Ken O’Meara