Sometimes albums are made as a wholly conscious reaction to their immediate predecessors. Think of R.E.M.’s abrupt return to full throttle rock on Accelerate after the tepid Around The Sun, or of Hot Chip’s concise, focused and bright pop album One Life Stand following the sprawling, brilliantly digressive Made In The Dark.
Rhythm might well be Swedish drums and vocal duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums’ ‘reaction’ album. Their last full length, Rivers, was initially conceived as two contrasting EPs rather than as an album and featured full, wide-ranging vocal orchestration (performed by the Schola Cantorum Reykjavík Chamber Choir) and steel pans. Rhythm is the duo’s first album in four years, strips things back to the original foundations of drummer/percussionist Andreas Werliin and vocalist Mariam Wallentin. This has been done before of course (perhaps most notably with Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie’s The Creatures), but never with this level of both drama and detail.
It is minimal in terms of sonics and arrangement, but this hardly does justice to the broad spectrum of possibilities, colours and sounds Werliin and Wallentin draw from their purposefully limited palette. The Offbeat, for example, is a brilliant example of groove architecture, with Werliin stating a punchy but unconventional drum theme and then developing it. In the absence of a harmony instrument, his addition and subtraction of detail (including a deftly executed cowbell clave pattern) makes substantial differences to the feel and energy of the track. The framework is not as rigid as, say, the Dogme manifesto for film-making (sometimes the band add a synth bass line for additional impact), but it is applied reasonably consistently.
The move away from choral arrangements also refocuses attention on Mariam Wallentin’s extraordinary power and range as a singer. She is in her element on the opening Ghosts & Pains, accompanying herself with a spectral piece of multi-tracked backing vocals. The use of studio techniques and layering enables her to become her own piano player or guitarist. On Ghosts & Pains, this works as a kind of dialogue, but on Soft Wind, Soft Death, she creates an eerie chorus, both powerful and weirdly discomforting. Elsewhere, when delivering a single melodic line, she is fleet footed and agile in her phrasing (particularly on Mind Blues), adept at handling complex rhythms and placements.
Another notable feature of Rhythm as a whole is its immediacy. Whilst much of Wildbirds & Peacedrums’ first two albums had a rawness and uncompromising force, Rhythm has an infectious quality and clarity that marks it out as the Wildbirds & Peacedrums album most likely to cross over to a wider audience. Tracks such as Keep Some Hope and Gold Digger are both insistent and artful. The nearest recent parallel might be tUnE-yArDs’ more polished and considered Nikki Nack (especially with the delightfully strange chirpy backing vocals and jagged intervals in the main melodic line on Mind Blues). Like Merrill Garbus’ joyfully eccentric, angular musical project, Wildbirds & Peacedrums are also incapable of sounding ordinary or pedestrian. For much of Rhythm, Werliin and Wallentin sound turbulent, restless and thrilling.
So, in addition to the frenetic, physical imperative and infectious hooks of The Offbeat or Keep Some Hope, what most impresses about Rhythm is its unrelenting intensity. Sometimes Wallentin sounds radical and unhinged, exploring some of the tensions in such an unusually exposed musical context and making it sound truly liberating. Werliin demonstrates remarkable freedom and independence in his playing, adding auxiliary percussion parts to his kit patterns, sometimes without the use of overdubbing. As a duo, they remain brilliantly intuitive and conversational – listen to the way in which Werliin’s dexterous but fragile ride pattern perfectly supports Wallentin’s soft, understated introduction to The Unreal Vs The Real, and how her approach changes as the drums expand outwards. This duo is an increasingly masterful unit. Even with just voice and drums, it would appear that the possibilities are endless.