Their most experimental and challenging album to date is certainly a long way from the nu-folk of their debut
Stealing Sheep‘s fourth album has its roots in a live installation at Newcastle and Gateshead’s Great Exhibition Of The North in 2018. The installation featured a mechanical light-up stage, robotic dance performers and music from the Liverpool trio inspired by the work of Delia Derbyshire, the legendary electronic trailblazer who arranged the theme for Doctor Who.
Wow Machine is their most experimental and challenging album to date. It’s certainly a long way from the nu-folk of their debut, and anyone who was charmed by the insistent rhythmic pop of their last album Big Wows is likely to be a bit bemused. Certainly, anyone coming to Stealing Sheep fresh from their arena support slot with Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark will probably wonder what on earth is going on.
That’s not to say there aren’t traditional ‘songs’ on Wow Machine – Never Gonna Live Up could be the closest thing that would belong on the last album – but there’s an awful lot of noodly electronica as well. Some of it is brilliant (opening track Power Up And Blast is the sort of propulsive, hypnotic electronica that Daniel Avery does so well), and some of it veers of the edge of self-indulgence: Don’t Think Just Do for example, lasts a whole 15 minutes and feels every second of that running time.
Yet it seems churlish to complain about experimentation when the entire project was inspired by female electronic pioneers such as Derbyshire, Laurie Anderson and Planningtorock. Experimentation was, after all, at the heart of most of their work, and Stealing Sheep take on the mantle well. Replicate is filled with vocal samples and analogue synths, dominated by the sound of clattering percussive beats, and Synthetic Love Muscle is probably the most danceable track on the record, pulsing away over the trio’s trademark vocals.
Sometimes, it all gets a bit too trippy for its own good – Input Output is a collection of speech samples, sped up and slowed down, and cut up over an ambient beat. It nods to SOPHIE at times, but you get the impression it worked better as part of the installation rather than a stand-alone track. The aforementioned Don’t Think Just Do has its moments but could do desperately with an editor to stop the attention wavering.
However, the joyous, euphoric surge in the instrumental, Euro-trance inspired Bar Italo, and the wonky pop sensibility of Never Gonna Live Up demonstrate that there’s much in Wow Machine for Stealing Sheep fans to enjoy. Casual fans are probably best directed to Big Wows in the first instance, but this is still an intriguing, if inessential, entry in the Stealing Sheep canon.