“Safe is death.”
It’s an adage that’s famous in professional hockey circles, but it also could prove rather useful to musical acts of all stripes.
It’s easy for bands to get trapped in artistic cul-de-sacs, releasing variations of a formula until they’re a “whatever happened to…?” footnote 10 years later. Wild Beasts could have been one of them.
When they burst onto the scene with 2008’s Limbo, Panto, they were custom-built for immediate impact: articulate and bouncy songwriting, trendy post-punk reference points and the flamboyant, go-for-broke caterwauling of vocalist Hayden Thorpe. They could have played it safe and milked that aesthetic to death.
But it turns out Wild Beasts were playing a longer game. With each released they’ve mutated and downshifted, trading hooks for ambiance and jagged guitars for moody synths. Thorpe has honed his voice down to an insidious coo.
Present Tense marks a further refinement and features a band continuing to keep itself restless and uncomfortable.
“Wanderlust,” then, is a fitting title for the opening track and lead single, and it’s an immediate contender for the best thing the band has ever put together. An insistent, syncopated drum track and synthesized choir of the damned build the mood before Thorpe glides in. The track bubbles, broods and builds to the ultimate kiss-off line, delivered with silky disdain: “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck.”
Elsewhere, bassist and co-vocalist Tom Fleming remains the X-factor that keeps the band off-balance and unpredictable. As distinctive as Thorpe’s pipes have always been, Fleming’s rich baritone and oddly aristocratic precision make his voice an equally effective weapon. When Present Tense aims for slow and creeping dread, as on “Daughters,” Fleming can draw out the ominous phrases until they sound like prophecy.
From the vocals on down, there’s always been something a bit alien and even vampiric about Wild Beasts. So it’s a delight to hear this band’s version of a lascivious come-on, with Present Tense offering several delectable nuggets. “Surrender your limbs to my every whim,” Thorpe implores his lover on the gorgeous “Mecca.” You could do worse for a pick-up line. “A Simple Beautiful Truth” is even more direct, with Thorpe rhapsodizing his woman’s lovin’ and basking in “that feel” (you know the one).
Unfortunately, Present Tense’s back end falls a bit limp after that dalliance between the sheets. A few of the latter tracks just sort of float there without doing much, representing the potential pitfalls of the band’s fascination with atmospherics.
Still, the album is a very solid synthesis of where Wild Beasts have been, and it offers a number of potential paths for the band moving forward. In a recent interview, Fleming expressed his desire for the group to mature without “heading to the suburbs.” Present Tense is well away from any of that: a little less showy, a little more manicured, but still wild and still less than safe.