Vessel States

(Jagjaguwar; 2006)

By Matt Stephens | 19 September 2007

As my esteemed colleague Clay Purdom quite rightly noted in his review of their self-titled debut last year, Wilderness is a band absolutely desperate to sound important. While that kind of lofty ambition has worked in the favour of more than a handful of bands through the years who have become just that, onWilderness it sounded more often than not like empty pomp, a band whose pretenses so obviously outweighed its craft, that, for me at least, it developed a silly kind of charm, much like a Wachowski brothers movie might. Despite all of the blue faces over at you-know-what proclaiming the band pioneers of a “cerebral rock revolution” (or some shit), the band’s grandiosity seemed way too ludicrous to actually buy into. I just took the album for what (I thought) it was: a collection of solidly written, atmospheric art-rock songs born from the side of the post-punk canon you don’t see pop up much these days. Namely, the repetitive, minimalist soundscapes of Public Image Ltd., with a little bit of Edge-influenced guitar work thrown in for good measure.

The first thing that struck me about this new record, even before I heard the thing, was how shortly it follows its predecessor. Of course, a mere nine months between albums would be unusually quick for any band in an era when The Beastie Boys, Nine Inch Nails or The Wrens can comfortably spend half-decades noodling around between releases, but it seems especially curious when one considers that Wilderness spent upwards of three years crafting their debut. That said, Wilderness never struck me as a labour of love -- the band’s fairly distinct sound (circular, melodic, high-register guitar riffs, busy, tom-tom heavy drumming, smooth basslines and bellowing, barely comprehensible vocals) sounded surprisingly organic, and I still struggle to conceive of how so much time could have been spent on songs that were so numbingly repetitive, and all based on pretty similar structures.

Yet, while I still like that album quite a bit (it cracked the very bottom of my top 30 of 2005), the follow-up, while clearly similar to its predecessors in most crucial ways and not entirely lacking in its portion of affecting moments, seems like a step backwards. Here, the tempos are slowed down considerably and the rhythm section has become a little less fussy, giving the lion’s share of the attention to James Johnson’s confrontational vocals and the band’s minimal, web-like guitar mantras. In spite of these stylistic touch-ups, the blueprint stays basically the same -- a reverberated, usually gorgeous guitar pattern introduces each song, and repeats itself for about a minute before Johnson’s vocals stagger in to beat the fuck out of it. In some songs, like “Beautiful Alarms” and “Fever Pitch”, the effect is a happy one, and the gravitas of Johnson’s voice and his fractured, stop-and-start lyrics marries itself comfortably with his much more restrained bandmates. But too much of the first half of the album is plagued by the friction between the vocals and the instruments, making “The Blood is On The Wall” and “Last” either dull or infuriating depending on who’s listening. While the two closers “Gravity Bent Light” and “Monumental” offer some reprieve (the former being the album’s real standout, a seven-minute epic that manages to achieve an actual climax, and a moving one at that), Vessel States ultimately feels paltry, unfinished, somehow insufficient coming from a band who clearly wanted us to expect so much.

The blame for this tedium, as far as I’m concerned, sits squarely with Johnson, whose vocals are an acquired taste to begin with, but here assert themselves even more obnoxiously than before. His pitch, timbre and inflections are virtually identical in every song Wilderness has recorded to date, and if the band is to have any hope of realizing their aspirations of grandeur, he’ll have to learn a few new tricks. And while the album is by no means a total failure, it’s not one anyone is likely to get excited about. Wilderness doesn’t sound important this time around, not even endearingly silly - Vessel States is just a pretty boring record, and I don’t imagine that’s something any band shoots for.