The opening line on Shriek finds Wye Oak‘s Jenn Wasner singing about waking up on the floor “thinking I have never dreamed before”. Conversely however, that appears to be exactly what she and Andy Stack have done on their fourth album, breaking free to re-imagine their sound and strikingly reconsider exactly what they wanted the band to be.
For a duo that have built their career to date around a relatively basic (if often inspired) formula of guitar and drums, the relegation of these core instruments in favour of the dominating presence of synthesizers on Shriek is unexpected, even more so given that such changes in direction are often preceded by bands going through periods of difficulty or struggle – something that didn’t really seem to apply to Wye Oak given the positive reception received by last album Civilian. The band have since spoken of how the album primarily came about after a prolonged period of touring made them stop and reassess.
On first listen, a sea of beautiful pastel shades seem to emanate, merging into one cohesive whole. Subsequent listens are far more revelatory however – discreet layers, hidden structures and careful attention to detail all emerging.
The synth-based, electronic sounds do fleetingly recall the music made by bands like Talk Talk and Depeche Mode in the early 1980’s (most notably on Glory) but Wasner and Stack put their own mark on it and ensure it sounds modern and relevant. Similarly, The Tower and Sick Talk display a svelte, refined Cocteau Twins influence but perhaps not in some of the more obvious ways that other bands have projected over recent years. The title track meanwhile shares many of the traits that have elevated Beach House to such a loved, lofty position. It’s not impossible that Wye Oak could follow a similar upwards trajectory very soon.
Wasner’s voice offers a link from old to new. It might not be quite as raw as before, here fluttering as much as it previously smouldered. There are signs of further versatility also, proving it is a thing of subtle, multi-faceted beauty – nowhere clearer than in the contemplative, ethereal peak reached on I Know The Law. Paradise is the closest they get to matching the searing guitar sound they established on Civilian, the one track that journeys through darker chambers.
Some of the tracks may have titles that feel ominous and imply darkness – Shriek, Sick Talk, Despicable Animal – yet most of the album is bathed in a warm, clear light. It’s a remarkably consistent piece of work – one of those rare albums where each track stands tall, the quality never really dipping.
Shriek is a powerful reminder of how refreshing and affecting bands can be if they have the confidence, self-awareness and ambition to look beyond their usual horizons. It’s hard not to come away thinking that with their capacity to surprise, Wye Oak have outsmarted their contemporaries, staying one step ahead of the pack.