Much has been made of the decision to abandon the guitars on Shriek, the fourth LP from Baltimore duo Wye Oak. Jenn Wasner, herself, expressed doubts as to whether reinvention was a wise move, leaving the band more open to criticism and vacating the comfortable niche they had etched out on the back of the success of Civilian since 2011. However, the assured confidence, indeed often swagger, of the record should quell any concerns.
Structurally, Wye Oak had a formula. The road often changed, but the destination was familiar. Ethereal guitars made way for frenetic crescendo and the songs stood apart as a result. While ‘Civilian’ and others are still striking, it is a welcome change of pace from a band clearly eager to push their boundaries. There is a distinct vacuum created by the absence of the shoegazing guitars (and their raucous successors) that the band was known for, but the new tone is established immediately.
Funky bass replaces dour wall-of-noise guitars, synthesisers worm around the sweet vocals of Jenn Wasner: this sounds like a band who have decided to have some fun. An irreverent vitality is palpable from the rhythmic synthesiser openings to its reverberating close. ‘Paradise’ is the closest the album comes to the band’s old style, powerful drumming and a wall of distortion form the backing track to a subjugated vocal. The track is followed by the album’s standout moment in ‘I Fought the Law’, however, a song that finds that wonderful marriage of the old and new. Wasner’s vocal deftly straddles a symphonic undertone, channeling her inner Annie Lennox. The song is embodies much of what the band set out to achieve with the album: cerebral and ambient, yet catchy and fresh.
On the album’s opener, ‘Before’, Wasner chimes “This morning, I woke up on the floor and felt like I had never dreamed before.” What had become a working functionality and a creative force had become restricting: it had to go. The relief is palpable: the album flutters and flits among a bevy of electronics, synthesiser rhythms fall like raindrops on a tent canvas, invasive and exhilarating. The metronomic rhythm of ‘The Tower’ pulsates on one of the year’s best pop songs to date, before surging into ‘Glory’, perhaps the most fitting title on the album.
It is a rich ambience, an album that embraces its fun side and channels Metronomy, Lower Dens, Robyn and Annie Lennox. It leaves the Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo records that formed the wall-of-sound of the band’s tentative years as a footnote, for the time being at least. It is a gutsy reinvention and all the better for it.