One of my favorite things about tape — be it cassette or reel-to-reel — has always been the way the players seem to suggest faces. The spindles look like eyes, and when they turn, they recall the expressions of crazy cartoon characters.
Maybe that’s just me.
But UK’s Wolf People certainly make no secret of their love for tape and the insanity it can communicate — the cover of their debut album Tidings shows miniatures of all manner of analog recording devices. Fans can even cut out replicas of them from Wolf People website to reproduce on their own. Accordingly, the quartet has riddled the album throughout with audible tape hiss that punctuates its mythic, winding course. Featuring almost as many “interludes” as “real songs,” the record — gathered together from Jack Sharp’s single releases on UK’s Battered Ornaments label between 2005 and 2007 — offers an unexpectedly complete, avant-garde reimagining of 60s and 70s psychedelic rock. Using rudimentary studio trickery over clearly superior musicianship, the band pays homage to the very medium depicted in the album’s artwork.
Weaving Western twang with Eastern slithering, the little vignettes that make up Tidings cover a serious amount of ground. “Interlude- Plains/Banjoe” is like a tiny, twisted Gaelic air and lasts only 31 seconds. The immediately following “Cotton Strands” wraps around a minor, haunting melody that slowly plods along as the sitar makes an indelible appearance. On this, as on many of the other tracks, Wolf People use flute pervasively (and successfully!) as both a melodic device and an improvisational, textural background. “Interlude- Circle/Viking/Colours” even features a multi-part flute choir in its beginning before devolving into a series of electronic whirrs & whistles and then reforming into something like lounge music.
But the ephemeral exploration doesn’t stop there. The latter bits of the album mostly serve as nothing more than short sound collages: “Untitled” is a weird Allman-Brothers-esque romp that seems to have more to do with the interplay between flute warbling and bendy guitar tones than it does with any kind of actual song structure. “Interlude- Cotton Fragment” intersperses periods of utter chaos with vocal sampling that sounds like the inside of an insane nightmare and finishes up with pretty gypsy guitar.
Aside from the short interludes, though, there’s strong pop composition to be found here. “Storm Cloud” showcases the band’s penchant for analog studio tricks by crafting a grinding, pentatonic melody and then running it over with all manner of buzzing and hissing and muted, melancholy vocals. The melody reappears briefly two tracks later in “Interlude- Scraps,” which is just what it sounds like: the band has used clippings of the rest of the album to make a noisy clattering of beeps and song parts. The recycled melodies lend an air of continuity to the record; they reassure us that, although Wolf People’s aesthetic is sometimes scattered, we’re all exploring one fully-realized world.
Likewise, “Empty Heart” is the record’s final “true” song, clocking in at 3:51. The Hendrix-y guitar melody mirrors the yellowing, faded vocal line that wails “Solitude grips like icy fingers.” Harmonica complements the generous use of bells, with unison between vocal melodies and the instrumental backing; for Wolf People, it’s not about layering different parts so much as beefing up one part with a variety of sonic textures. When the bass drops out for a moment, the composition suddenly seems cavernous. Then the track ends, like several others, with the audible pressing of tape recorder buttons.
Tidings then, is a journey down a strip of tape from one reel to the other. Yes, it’s a little warped and damaged, but that’s what gives it its character; the insane parts make the most sense of all.