Wild Beasts - Limbo, Panto
Simon Jay Catling 18/06/2008
Wherever Wild Beasts came from, surely it isn't Kendal. Cumbria always feels a bit detached from the rest of England sure, but not like this. The fact that most of the county's a National Park means no mobile phone masts, and this alone gives you an indication of its isolated feel. Additional to this are the rolling, guard-like hills that surround and watch your every move, and the lakes that cover miles of the mostly unblemished countryside. Even a decampment to Leeds does little to pour light upon the influences of this extravagant four piece. Kaiser Chiefs? Elland Road (although funnily enough I might not be far off on this one)? Skinny jeans and trilbies? Sure I'm doing 'the Northern London' a discredit by pigeonholing it so generally, but the feeling remains; most bands debut LP's allow the listener to get some semblance of where the music they're listening to comes from, not so Wild Beasts.
What is it that we're dealing with here? A pop band? The melodies are certainly there, the tightness and immediacy is all there, but to merely call Wild Beasts a pop band is to greatly neglect the sound that they're creating. No; 'Limbo, Panto' comes across more as a 21st century opera. Catchy enough to keep hold of our increasingly short attention spans with songs about late nights, gaudy sex and growing up, yet possessing an amount of pompousness and grandiosity that's far too much to absorb from one listen alone. Who can we call their peers? Lyrically the group's nearest peer would surely have to be the Arctic Monkeys and bands of their ilk; this LP consists of nothing other than songs of 18-30 working class Britain, but unlike Alex Turner, Wild Beasts lead singer Hayden Thorpe lyrically paints a scene far beyond the simple romance that the Arctic's man aims for. Thorpe instead takes these apparent everyday and unremarkable environments and adds backing dancers, costumes, garishness and drama to the most camp level. And what a falsetto he delivers it in; not since Mr. Mercury will a voice split opinion so neatly. Like the band's music (and we'll get to that in a minute), Thorpe's is a voice of ridiculous pretension, knowing of critical provocation; let's face it, there's not many male voices about at the moment confident enough to deliver in such an overblown and indulgent manner; Matthew Bellamy sure, but even on Muse's debut 'Showbiz' his vocals were reined in and censored. Not so here, Hayden Thorpe imprints his mark right from opening track 'Vigil For A Fuddy Duddy', swooning across the 70's sounding disco ballad as he describes a sexual encounter with more smut than Mills & Boons, “flaccid, I asked for this bellow spit rich belly pit moan and blush with hot hormone”. 'The Club of Fathomless Love' meanwhile is a lyrical delight, exploring a young man's preparation for a night out and it's eventual happening, describing the club poetically, “we bellow baritone to our favourites, like life depends on it!/ I hold my brothers in breathtaking clinches/ this is my heart's hub, the hot, wild, fug of the club of the fathomless love”, it's a scene we've all seen before many a time and yet Wild Beasts tell it as one might describe a scene from A Clockwork Orange; and why shouldn't they? If ever there's a time in your life when everything you do is achingly important then it's surely at the onset of manhood; dressing up such a night musically is no different than what we do in our minds every time we go out, get drunk and fall down at the beginning of our alcohol led lives.
It's this lyrical content and subject matter which prevents 'Limbo, Panto' from truly taking off for the sun and bursting in a blaze of its own unrepentant egotistical bravado. 'The Old Dog' is a lesson in the pitfalls of casual sex, graphically describing the unwanted birth as “a human is hauled from the wombs wired jaw”, whilst 'Please, Sir' is a naughty schoolboy's plea to be allowed back into class following a series of misdemeanours. Fourth track, 'Woebegone Wanderers', is another of note; taking leave of the burlesque cabaret sound that the previous two songs contained, and reverting back to the 70's disco of the opener before sending each verse off into an exotic waltz. Thorpe meanwhile passionately soars above the toe tapping bass and jangling guitars to painstakingly portray something as common as supporting a football team “we've been lumbered with the losing life for far too long/ the ground bellows like the belly of a sleeping whale”. The band even operatically recreate the standard chant of 'Who are yer' to good effect. Yet this is not an album all about the lead singer and his lyrics, for it's as a band that Wild Beasts excel and not as individuals. Drummer Chris Talbot ties the whole album together with percussion that ranges from the straight ahead stomp of 'Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants' and 'The Devil's Crayon' to the slower, more subtle hi-hats and symbols seen on 'The Old Dog'. Ben Little's guitar contains the tone that takes the Wild Beasts far away from their peers in terms of any musical similarity; seemingly coming as he does from a time when every guitarist was required to have a quiff and a suit, whilst Tom Fleming's bass weaves its way through ten songs of patterns ranging between swing, funk and a whole lot more in between. Such difference in styles sounds like a recipe for disaster, but miraculously it holds together as well as any pop punk band. Perhaps the epitome of the LP is 'Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants'; together with final track 'Cheerio Chaps, Cheerio Goodbye', it provides an almost happy final scene, an epilogue if you will, describing the characters who have come before as those who need “to make the most, before we turn to ghost/ swig the bottle, bottle/ slap the face of Aristostle”. Meanwhile an eminently danceable rhythm not unlike Hot Chip juts through the exotic, dreamy funk-filled haze. Whilst maybe not the best track on the album, it is perhaps a song that could be described as the opera's programme notes, giving an overview of the album. The aforementioned 'Cheerio Chaps, Cheerio Goodbye' is the encore for this ten part stage show and, as you'd expect from this album, works as a deliciously indulgent closer for what is as much of a diverse, ambitious and purely ridiculous an album as you'll hear all year.
Yes, Wild Beasts are going to have their haters; any band who nails their colours to the mast so blatantly as this foursome have done are going to have their critics, be it the marmite voice of vocalist Hayden Thorpe, the 70's throwbacks of some of the tracks or just the sheer absurdity of the entire album. Are they taking this seriously or are they just taking the piss? Perhaps before answering that you should take a look at your own life. How often as a youth have you viewed a night out as an event of utmost importance, what does it feel like when the team you support loses 3-2 from a penalty after going 2-0 up? How much did you build up the losing of your virginity? How risqué and dark did some of your early sexual encounters seem? Wild Beasts are merely playing out the importance of all these events that have already occupied a similar level of priority in your mind at some point or other. So before you mock or deride this band, take a stop and realise that to do that you are forgetting a part of your life that's either happened or is currently taking place. You don't have to be The Enemy or Hard-Fi to empathise with the common man; when listening to 'Limbo, Panto' drop the “too cool for school” attitude and you'll hopefully find yourself engrossed in one of the albums of the year. And they're from Kendal!?