The second proper full-length from UK's Wolf People is out today—it's their third record overall, including a compilation of early material from 2005-2007 called Tidings, and 2010's splendid Steeple. That latter record was my first introduction to the English band, and it blew me away via the band's dark but not overtly heavy take on classic rock, British folk, Led Zep blooze, and trans-European psychedelia. Seriously, it's an incredible album. Despite being released on indie powerhouse Jagjaguwar—Wolf People is the first British band on that label—it made little of an impression Stateside. The band didn't even tour here.
Now the followup, Fain, is here, and I met it with severe anticipation and more than a tiny bit of anxiety. Could Wolf People—a band that I'll easily rank at the top of my favorite new groups of the past few years—deliver another record as good as the majestic Steeple? Even half as good would be enough. But after spending plenty of time with a pre-release copy of Fain, I feel confident in asserting two things: (1) The album is nothing if not a grower, and requires a few listens to fully plumb its depths, and (2) Fain is every bit as good as Steeple, and welcomely shows the band embracing a natural growth, finding its individuality among its overt and at times indelible influences.
The two easy touchstones on 2010's Steeple were Jethro Tull and Cream, and while I've never experienced any great love for either of those bands, it seemed a good shorthand to describe Wolf People. With Fain, though, different comparisons seem apt, many of them cited in the band's press materials: Fairport Convention, Dungen, and the tragically overlooked Mighty Baby (the psych-prog incarnation of the splendid beat band the Action). Recorded in an isolated house in the Yorkshire Dales—which was so crammed with recording gear the band had to camp in tents outside, under continually pouring rain—Fain doesn't shy away from the curling, fire-licked tendrils of the music's inherent historical and mythical overtones. Even putting a name like Wolf People aside, this should be the indie band performing those (admittedly crummy) Game of Thrones songs, not the National or the Hold Steady.
From a production standpoint, Fain is dipped in distorted fuzz, muscular riffs, swinging drums, and a battle-charged, epic approach to sound while remaining crisp and clean in the speakers—no washed out echo or never-ending delays here; in fact, I don't notice any blatant production trickery of any kind. It sounds more or less like the band set up in the house and recorded themselves pretty plainly. Still, the result is entirely lost-in-time, like it could have come from the future, or even been beamed from a thousand years ago (provided they had amplifiers and microphones back then).
- Ben Etridge
Unsurprisingly, the best tracks are the longest ones, when Wolf People allow themselves to spread out over six or seven minutes of carefully laid, thoughtfully composed music (there are guitar solos, to be sure, but at no point is there vamping, or even any evident jamming). At seven minutes, the brilliant "Thief" still feels far too short, with a loping riff that will put a vast grin on the smile of any Sabbath fan. "When the Fire Is Dead in the Grate" and "Hesperus" (these song titles! They're like chapters of a mildewy, chunky-paged adventure book your grandfather passed down) are also magnificent, utilizing drama and dynamics with perhaps more skill than any contemporary artist I can think of. These songs are not so much composed as designed, with careful architecture and restraint. Perhaps the only track that initially falls short is the opener, "Empty Vessels," which is the most different sounding thing the band has done, using a more modern guitar sound and a restless beat that sounds fidgety rather than emphatic. But even this track reveals its excellence after a few listens.
What's most miraculous with Fain is how Wolf People find a very specific, very unique niche that touches on metal, folk, and hard rock (territory that could be categorized as over-utilized, certainly), but never fully dives into any one of those styles, instead finding an uncommon sound that I'll venture has no obvious match. It's a very English, very accessible sound, and one suspects that if this were the early '70s Wolf People would be playing arenas with Deep Purple. As it stands, the band still has never played a US show to my knowledge (correct me if I'm wrong?) and currently there is no tour of the States planned following Fain's release. This needs to be rectified; with Steeple and now Fain, it's evident to me that Wolf People are one of the best bands on the planet, rock or otherwise.
Wolf People's Fain comes out today on Jagjaguwar, and it is awesome.