11 Nov 2016
Wolf People - Ruins
Reviewed by Shaun C. Rogan
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the woods, Wolf People have returned from Valhalla having sailed across the Black Fjord aboard the Hesperus, to reclaim their crown as the UK's premier acid folk rock band with their third long player proper, 'Ruins'. Which more than justifies this massive reputation - this is a heavy record in all possible ways. They look the same on the surface but these are changed men. The Wolf People have the thousand yard stare and are seeing beyond. Three years they have been away, three long years...then play on.
Opener 'Ninth Night' appears in a blur of over-amped vocals, whistling theremin, relentless drumming tattoos and a general mood of dread mixed with a relish/mania that only comes with preparing for battle. "Rhine Sagas" has that 1969/1970 High Tide type vibe completely nailed. Imagine 'Elemental Child' by Marc Bolan doused in petrol and set ablaze at midnight to the cries of a million harpies - all powered by a bulldozing bass and drums assault topped by some feral, snarling guitars. Welcome back.
Then, unbelievably, the ante is upped further and things get truly fucking terrifying with 'Night Witch'. This reveals Wolf People's greensleeves to be caked in other's blood and bone, their hands dirty, their eyes ablaze, an apparition in sound with a rocketing guitar solo scooping you up high into the black clouds that stretch out forever - a firestorm of feedback, reverb and dissonance. Take a bow Joe Hollick, you have just razed half of North London to the ground from my stereo.
"Kingfisher" provides a balm of sorts - its delicately twisting and recurring guitar tag-line and warm harmonised vocals replete with spectral flute (a la Mighty Baby) before breaking down and re-emerging on the wings of some hugely tasteful and beautifully chiming dual guitar riffage. It's magical motifs will reappear in brief intervals twice more during the record. It's a great idea and means that you are reminded of its insistence long after listening. Gorgeous.
But, as with everything on this record, you feel some kind of significant reckoning is never far away. The songs collected here feel like they have been wrenched from deep within their creators and are manifest almost against their will. The record's troubled birth documented by bad omens leads you to imagine that 'Ruins' has been some extreme form of therapy for those involved. It has a terrible beauty sitting within its heart of darkness and even at its lightest moments, Wolf People are the unhappiest men at the carnival. This of course, given their mastery of the art, makes for an absolutely riveting listening experience that draws you further in every time you listen. Onward.
"Thistles" is a personal favourite with a fuzzier than fuzzed guitar opening giving way to some beautifully weightless vocals that seem to float and flutter on the periphery of your vision whilst guitars once more swoop and dive counterpointed by a lovelier than lovely string driven figure before dissipating into clouds of feedback. God I love this tune. Pete Townshend would love this tune too. Can I play it again, right now?
"Crumbling Dais" attempts to catch you off balance by coming on like 'Graveyard' by early 1970s no hit folk wonders Forest before slipping the clutch and unfurling its standard in the breeze as a doomy rocker with all the right moves. Cool. A swift 'Jug of Love' type interpretation of the main 'Kingfisher' theme hoves into view momentarily before drifting back along the shore making way for the crunchy, funky rhythms of 'Not Me Sir'. Here again, the sense of shock and dread is prominent and a sense of urgency to get the message through at whatever cost from this field in England is strong as chambered guitar lines flicker like camp fires and Jack Sharps beautifully phrased vocals pull me, dazed and confused, towards the burning heat before the lights go out and I am pitched into blackness.
"Belong" smashes me awake again with its awesome take on the Pretty Things 'SF Sorrow' squeezed into 3 minutes and 49 seconds. To belong to something more indeed. What an abso-fucking-lutely bang on tune. And despite my references to the work of revered luminaries such as High Tide and the ever lurking Mighty Baby, perhaps the overall theme of "Ruins" - its dystopia, its dread, and its not too obscured references to war and its consequences line it up conceptually with the Pretties masterpiece in many ways. That's not to try and hang it from the pole with unreasonable expectation at all as 'Sorrow' is quite rightly considered a huge triumph of the first psychedelic age BUT this is a great record too. And I am going to say its probably the best record I have heard released by any British band this year. And frankly, I needed a new Wolf People record to come out, I needed the splendour of 'Salts Mill' with its beautifully woven tapestry of guitar and reeds to retain my faith in UK acid-rock-folk-prog's ability to make sounds like no other. Thank Christ (for the bomb) they turned up just in time to pull Excalibur from the rock and catch the lightning with it.
The parting 'Glass' is suitably cryptic and glowing, Wolf People take their leave before we have the chance to ask any further questions - leaving us to ponder these ruins we live amongst and decide how best to make a brave new world for now and forever.
So there you have it, the third full instalment of the Wolf People saga. They remain thirsty, they continue to see further than mere mortals and they arrive with the message just when you need them to. We salute them and wish them Godspeed for without their visitations this sceptre isle would be a more barren and unforgiving place. An essential release and a must for the 2016 'best of' shortlist.
Post script: As I complete this review (9th November 2016), I get word that Martin Stone, the immensely talented guitar player from amongst others The Action and Mighty Baby has passed on aged just 69. This gives 'Ruins' a further added poignancy to me as Martin's work has clearly helped scope out some of the vision of Wolf People. This review is very humbly dedicated to his memory.
Ruins is available on CD, Vinyl and digital formats here (UK/EU) or here (US).