Album Review: Wild Beasts – Boy King
Boy King (Domino)
The music of Wild Beasts has regularly proved to be an ornate confection, drawn from the curious minds of four musicians keen to wield the tried-and-tested tools of indie-rock while questing for much more peculiar results. While never wholly straightforward, the progression of the Kendal quartet as charted across their first four albums generally indicates a softening of their sharper edges; the swooping dramatics of their early work smoothed down into sleek art-pop, and the lusty groans of yesteryear sublimated by a more wholesome contentment. By 2014’s Present Tense, listeners could be forgiven for thinking that the group’s days of hooting and howling had at last been put to bed – or so it seemed until early portents of Boy King crashed to earth, indicating a fifth album curveball which refutes any notions of a band tamed with smirking disdain.
In stark contrast to the warm expanses heard in ‘Palace’ and ‘Mecca’, Boy King is squat, muscular, and moody. It frames Wild Beasts as if caught beneath the glow of a full moon, transformed (whether temporarily or for the long-term) into swaggering brutes hunting for confrontation. Producer John Congleton encouraged the band’s gut instincts while mining a thick, leathery aesthetic, and the solution is Wild Beasts’ brashest effort yet: heavy on the ears and blunt in sentiment. Gone are the open spaces and intricate filigrees, instead we are presented with menacing electronics and OTT guitar heroics, with striking imagery to match. The Boy King cover is composed of deep oranges and blacks, with a schlocky band logo stamped beneath the looming, monstrous and ridiculous figure of the “boy king”: a projection of the male ego that Thorpe and co. are keen to dissect in the most visceral way possible. Intended as both a vilification and celebration of modern masculinity, Boy King is a gaudy project, but a playful one too. The group are teasing and baiting their audience like never before: some will be repelled by the grubbiness that the album revels in, while others may be thrilled by such a gearshift. And indeed, while the more refined textures and subtleties of past works have been thrown to the wind, it’s heartening to hear Wild Beasts serving their own artistic whims and impulses, refusing to settle for complacency and pushing themselves to rethink previous templates.
What emerges is a striking – if not entirely unprecedented – take on Wild Beasts’ early brand of carnal lust, yet where Limbo, Panto dressed its “huffing and puffing” in vaudevillian drama and bizarre punchlines, on Boy King, dual vocalists Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming aren’t afraid to go straight for the jugular – “get in and get out”, as they put it. Their previous come-ons (“new squeeze, take off your chemise / and I’ll do as I please”) appear positively genteel when measured against some of the unfettered demands on display here (“you can stuff your chastity” makes for a particularly prickly opening gambit), and when incorporated with insidious grooves and bruising production, the effect is exacerbated. The approach is simultaneously exhilarating and repulsive in its overwhelming (and occasionally cartoonish) machismo. Limber lead single ‘Get My Bang’ finds the band circled by a mass of warped cackles (as sampled from The Knife), which goad the group into the “darker ages” of entitled consumption (whether it’s that of material or fleshly gain is left open to interpretation). The song is crowned by a splattering guitar solo; a gleeful tribute to the “shred face” of rock mythology rivalled by the sludgy guitars of ‘He the Colossus’. It’s fun to hear the band let rip like this, although there are cuts on the album where such tricks are on-the-nose without significant payoff. Such moments further accentuate the outlying beauty of album highlight ‘Celestial Creatures’; an odyssey of the night that conjures a neon cityscape through thrumming guitars and spooked pianos, gloriously rendered in Congleton’s rubbery production. It’s an ecstatic rhapsody crowned by a sumptuous coda, with some of Thorpe’s dreamiest observations (“every fibre remains so alive”) stirred into the atmospheres.
Beyond this rare moment of exaltation, the world scrutinised in Boy King is lewd and apocalyptic. Between sleazy encounters and sinister advances, Thorpe and Fleming are busy eyeballing the self-destruction ingrained in such behaviour. The desperation underpinning these attempted conquests shows through from time to time, leavening the more outrageous claims with hints towards an existential dislocation. “I want you to love me,” Fleming howls during the excellent R&B thump ‘Ponytail’, while on ‘2BU’ he’s consumed by a queasy mixture of rage and desire, savouring a vengeful pursuit while also fantasising ownership of his quarry. Thorpe nails it most brazenly on the swaggering ‘Tough Guy’; a bludgeoning piece of riff-rock which circles back to the sentiment “I’d better suck it up / like a tough guy would”. In every corner of the record, the sordid outcries can be traced to the masculine entitlement entrenched by society, and ‘Tough Guy’ articulates the double-edged ugliness that such standards induce. An eyebrow-raising double-entendre during the second verse sees Thorpe wailing “but we’re just not big enough!”, looking on as males attempt to fill the holes in themselves with sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and other gimmicky pleasures. It feeds off the question of what it is that makes a man, and gives Boy King a sharpness beneath the surface, even if it’s an avenue which the group could have explored more deeply for greater effect. Ultimately, the priapic binging still comes with a hangover, as Thorpe’s weary croon during the lonely ‘Dreamliner’ asserts. Finally reaping the consequences of past misdeeds, Boy King concludes on a note of regret and self-evisceration, Thorpe’s avatar coming up hollow in a painful examination of the self.
With its inherent contradictions (does the brusque aesthetic disguise grand intentions, or a lack thereof?), it’s a strange album to digest, and one which will leave a sour taste for anybody disgusted by the thought of Two Dancers’ masterminds chucking out the reading list and stamping on the distortion pedal. There’s certainly less detail to delve into, and for its instantaneous thrills, it’s a record with perhaps less staying power than its peers. However, what swings in the album’s favour is the energetic freedom discernible in the band’s performances. After the album’s surface shocks (its comparatively cruel overtones, the sonic bombast, its bizarre and often uncomfortable flaunting of masculine habits), Wild Beasts’ sense of adventure peeks through the noise. Boy King demonstrates the quartet acting intuitively, “play[ing] chicken” with themselves and driving their vision with a focus and willingness to tinker. As of release, it’s a challenge to determine how much of a bellwether Boy King will prove to be for Wild Beasts: will it be the first bold step into a new style, or a brief sojourn into the darkest recesses of the male ego? Whichever way, it’s an album that digs beneath the skin, one which, while sonically distinct from its predecessors, carries the same integrity and restless craving to evolve that has become Wild Beasts’ trademark.
“These are blessed times / We are celestial creatures.”
Posted on August 17, 2016, in The Music World and tagged Album Review, Big Cat, Boy King, Celestial Creatures, Domino, Get My Bang, Hayden Thorpe, John Congleton, Present Tense, Tom Fleming, Wild Beasts. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.