Wolf Alice’s 2015 debut My Love Is Cool revealed a young rock band with dynamic potential. Memorable melodies, stimulating lead-guitar work and impressive stylistic variety proved the Camden four-piece were far more than a 90s grunge throwback (though the influence is certainly pronounced).
Their follow-up, Visions of a Life, finds Ellie Roswell and co. less accessible, more abrasive, and backed by an upsurge of rocky angst. But sadly it does not find the band progressing as expected. Hooks and grooves have made way for a monolithic wall of sound, that, aside from a few dissonant touches, is frequently lacking in colour.
This wall of sound is at times effective. ‘Heavenward’ is a cloud-busting opener that soars through the skies on whirling reverb-drenched guitars and Roswell’s soaring falsetto. But too often Wolf Alice depend on vigorous but bland chord strumming to force a climax, instead of interlacing counter-melodies and interesting textures as guitarist Joff Oddie used to great effect on their first album. On ‘Planet Hunter’, ‘Sadboy’, and ‘Space & Time’ this results in an indistinct haze of noise, while on lead single ‘Yuk Foo’ it comes out as a dross riot grrrl thrash: a two-minutes-too-long spew of jejune lyrics and grating singing.
It would be unfair to suggest that Visions of a Life is one big thrash-fest however. Second single ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’ is a conscious foil to ‘Yuk Foo’. Rather than defying social expectations, Roswell longs for Hollywood convention and is dreamily soundtracked by a misty synth line and heavenly chorus harmonies. It’s unashamedly clichéd and trickles with syrupy romance: “How awful is that, I’m like a teenage girl,” Roswell sighs, “I might as well write all over my notebook that you ‘rock my world’.” But that doesn’t stop it being an affectingly chimeric love song, both desperate and euphoric.
Where ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’ exposes Wolf Alice’s delicate centre, ‘Beautifully Unconventional’ exudes cool. With its nifty guitar lick and springy bass groove reminiscent of ‘Freazy’ from My Love Is Cool, the track sounds like a retro two minute pop single, topped off with a swanky chorus vocal.
‘Beautifully Unconventional’ showcases the versatility of Ellie Roswell’s voice – her fine ear for detail exemplified by a coquettishly delivered ‘cute’. As before, Roswell takes on different vocal characters throughout Visions of a Life. During the spoken verses of ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’ she plays up her British accent (annunciating all her Os and Ts). On the ear-popping feedback of ‘Sky Musings’ she rambles hysterically as she contemplates free-falling 40,000 feet to her death. Over the menacing riffs of ‘Formidable Cool’ she whispers sibilantly sinister lyrics darkly detailing an abusive relationship, before breaking out into shrill screeching.
More pleasantly, the acoustic-led ‘After the Zero Hour’ shows glimpses of just how good a melody writer Roswell can be, ornamenting a winding falsetto with sensuous, siren-like harmonies. It’s a shame that Roswell’s voice isn’t always prominent in the mix, especially compared to Theo Ellis’ unjustifiably loud bass – but at least Visions of a Life is not stiflingly over-produced like its predecessor.
In the last four tracks, the band employ the same unconventional song structures and dynamic changes that originally lifted them out of the indie landfill. The album closer and title track is an eight-minute prog-rock strut featuring some nice discordant turns, as well as jolting drops and lurches in tempo. Its forced riffs betray an elongated attempt at recreating the grand savagery of ‘Giant Peach’ – the final three minutes dissipate rather than amplify the drama.
‘St. Purple & Green’ is the album’s most intriguing track, blending pretty overlapping guitar interplay with fluttering hi-hats and wondrous choral harmonies, before blasts of distortion drive the song to a surging crescendo.
But too often Visions of a Life is a relentless rock assault – perhaps an inevitable result of the band touring non-stop for five years. The diversity of styles and moods the band create is admirable, and while I’m sure the tracks will work better live, I can’t help feeling Wolf Alice are capable of a lot more.