Unlike many bands that begin their careers with relatively straightforward fare before gradually becoming more experimental, Manchester’s Dutch Uncles announced themselves to the record buying public back in 2009 with their bewildering array of instrumentation, frequently impenetrable lyrics and penchant for tricksy time signatures already fully formed.
While their German-recorded eponymous debut and 2011’s Cadenza hinted at their rich promise, Out Of Touch In The Wild sees Dutch Uncles really come of age with a record of impressive confidence, invention and – for all their undoubted cleverness – accessibility. It’s probably fair to say that your average indie rock group wouldn’t pen a tune named after a scenario in a chess game where the player has no option but to make one specific move (Zug Zwang), yet the song itself is a mesmerising cocktail of irresistible, toe-tapping rhythms and compositional flair that epitomises the five piece’s appeal.
Although frequently compared to another similarly leftfield but more fêted act from across the Pennines, Sunderland’s Field Music, Dutch Uncles are by a clear margin superior to the Brewis Brothers’ occasionally over-earnest ensemble, thanks principally to the more dramatic, musically rich ingredients they bring to their songs.
Prominent among these is the swooping, quivering tenor of lead vocalist Duncan Wallis, which often recalls Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe in its androgynous tone and dizzying range, and even – notably on the dense, piano-led soundscapes of Phaedra – has a bizarre yet unmistakeable hint of later Kate Bush. Lyrically, it takes some time for his themes here to become apparent, but it seems an internal tussle to understand the concept of masculinity is present throughout many of the songs on Out Of Touch In The Wild.
Yet for all his impressive abilities, there’s so much going on here Wallis is never allowed to dominate. Indeed, arguably one of Dutch Uncles’ greatest strengths is that their music never sits still and is devilishly difficult to categorise, thanks to the intricate tapestry of expertly woven threads painstakingly constructed on each song so adroitly that it all fits together perfectly, without any single element being allowed to monopolise the listener’s attention.
For example, classical orchestration can sometimes be employed unsubtly and gratuitously in popular music, but Dutch Uncles use of strings is pitched absolutely perfectly here, whether it’s pizzicato on Flexxin, the slow elegant atmospherics that open Zug Zwang or the choppy, angular violin riffs of Godboy.
This last track encapsulates everything that is great about Dutch Uncles. Beginning with a chiming guitar figure that wouldn’t disgrace John Squire in his Stone Roses pomp, it goes on to showcase all Uncles’ best qualities; the ability to vary a song’s pace, insidiously funky rhythms, a gift for unexpectedly catchy melodies and a sonic palette that shifts seamlessly from squalling electronica to quasi-classical without ever sounding cluttered or uneven.
With the Mercury Prize win for Alt J proving that widespread recognition can be achieved by an act loosely termed as ‘art rock’ it’s not out of the question that Out Of Touch In The Wild could prove to be an early contender for similar acclamation in 2013. At the very least, it can only be hoped that this highly accomplished work provides Dutch Uncles with the same kind of breakthrough that the aforementioned Wild Beasts achieved with Two Dancers. On the evidence here, they now belong in such rarefied company.