YOWL are out with a new EP, and it’s a lush, multi-layered record crafted with a certain ingeniousness and a wise attitude to production, which requires more than one listen to fully catch all that it has to offer. The band has created a deep, rich texture of sound that is best enjoyed slowly and with attention, replete as it is with different suggestions, sometimes disparate – much of Atrophy is almost an exercise in making different types of sound, in theory at odds with each other, work together as smoothly as possible, making contrast its main creative engine and playing with daring associations from start to finish.
You might not expect a record like this to tap into country, for instance, yet anyone who, like me, has been known to listen to The Handsome Family on repeat will easily recognise here an echo of that kind of gloomy Americana, both in sound and in lyrics, especially on tracks like mellow opener ‘Sunken Boy.’ There’s a smug, confident hint of the Seventies resurfacing here and there throughout the record, not only in the falsetto vocals providing a bold counterpoint to Gabriel Byrde’s warm but ironic baritone, but also in the way choice chords create a mood that would be perfect for a dance-room in a non-obvious way. And when the guitar sound gets harsher, and the vocals allow themselves to descend in a more cutting yelp, there is a sharp reminiscence of classic punk rearing its head, and even, at one point, a suggestion of biker rock. Go no further than ‘Pagan Middleman,’ a very short high-energy interlude – barely a minute and a half – with its almost heavy metal opening guitars and vocals ranging from slurry punk to a slightly demented falsetto, strategically placed mid-record, for a striking example. Yet somehow all of this comes together to create something that should not make sense on paper, but does all too much in its final form – with a highly personal voice, a good dose of courage, without losing its bite.
The Peckham quintet are also a British band who won’t let you forget they are one. There are plenty of sound references to be found here to the long and glorious history of the country’s music scene, addressed and reinterpreted in a way that imposes new layers of meaning upon them. We have said of the Seventies, but the Nineties feature too, in those tracks that come somewhat close to being Britpop ballads but then choose to go a completely different way – ‘An Inflexible Storeroom‘ starts like something that might be a close relative to Oasis’ glory days, then develops into a rough-around-the-edges ballad that proceeds in waves of sound before being infiltrated by an unexpected, heavily distorted guitar shriek. ‘John the Collector‘ has quite a bit of old punk in its sounds, an effective contrast to its half-sarcastic, half-melancholy, almost existential lyrics. ‘Salt Fish‘ closes the record on a lulling croon, another almost-ballad with a broader sound, a hint of irony, and a somewhat disquieting bass. ‘Mammalian Fondness‘ has something of an old Mott the Hoople hit in its first half, with a deliberately rough production that gives the pleasant impression that this is recorded in a makeshift studio somewhere in someone’s garage; it is melodic in a catchy but sneaky way with some unexpected scrappy guitar thrown in right past midpoint, with a long instrumental section once more showcasing this band’s love for contrast.
There is no doubt that YOWL have made up their mind on what they want to sound like. Their exploration of unexpected associations makes them immediately recognisable, as does Byrde’s well-rounded voice and their minimalist but clever attitude to production, their slight tinge of nostalgia matched with a clear awareness of the contemporary musical landscape. They’re not scared to allow some tracks to be slightly longer than average when they have to, in order to explore everything that they wish to do with them. There is, here and there, a feeling that this strongly personal voice might be a constraint as much as it is an asset – that it might turn into a self-enforced limit – but in this EP this is not the case, and a pleasant versatility matches this trademark sound in yet another pleasant contrast. Not all tracks on this record might be equally memorable, but the whole package is bold, intelligent, and commands the listener’s attention.
YOWL’s Atrophy is out now via Clue Records – and is available on various formats here. You can catch YOWL live on December 13th at Peckham Audio, London.
Photo Credit: Holly Whitaker