Their second album for Sub Pop (following 2005's "Apologies To The Queen Mary") might just be this generation's "Marquee Moon" or an indie rock "Chinese Democracy" released thirty years early. Better though, to think of it as the sound of a band edging forward into a wispy darkness, one hand reaching out, the other firmly clutching the past.
Review by Corey Kahn
If any band could have been rightfully expected to deliver on the promise of a debut as stellar as Apologies to the Queen Mary, Wolf Parade are that band. As a whole slew of groups of their era turned in less than great sophomore records (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Tapes 'n Tapes, even Arcade Fire), At Mount Zoomer proves Wolf Parade to be much more than the one-trick pony of their peers. And it's no surprise -- both of the band's primary songwriters have established themselves as two of the most exciting and consistent songwriters in indie rock, coming off of great records in their own right: Spencer Krug's Random Spirit Lover with Sunset Rubdown (not to mention the Swan Lake record), and Dan Boeckner's Plague Park with his Handsome Furs project. But even after three years away from the Parade, they come to Mount Zoomer with a fresh reel of tape, and are back with a more mature and confident approach. Where Apologies showcased a young, energetic band still searching for its sound (with the production help of Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock), Mount Zoomer features that same band harnessing all the things that made its debut so appealing, but with a conscious effort to avoid rewriting the same record. The overall feel is less exuberant, and they are much more patient with the songwriting this time around, with drummer Arlen Thompson handling production duties (Mount Zoomer is the name of his studio). The arrangements seem to be better thought out as well; the guitars function more as melodies or leads than the driving rhythms of the songs, with the keyboards generally higher (or at least equal) in the mix, and the result is much more efficient. And while this album may not contain as many immediately gratifying hits (you won't find any "Shine a Light" or "I'll Believe in Anything" here), it does succeed as an album more cohesively. Leadoff single "Call It a Ritual" rides a stuttering piano figure, and recalls indie rock mainstays Spoon -- in fact, so does "Fine Young Cannibals," and clean keys factor much more prominently in Mount Zoomer than the treated synths of Queen Mary. The synths do still buzz occasionally -- albeit less frantically -- but the textures are more varied, like on "Language City" or the swirls in the snare-happy waltz-like opener, "Soldier's Grin." The pacing of the album is also impeccable, not only in the sequencing, but in the individual tracks as well. Centerpiece "California Dreamer" breathes and swells with almost prog dynamics until it builds to its stomping, singalong chorus of "I thought I might have heard you on the radio, but the radio waves are like snow," and 11-minute album closer "Kissing the Beehive" (the original title of the record) all but gives out completely before bringing it all back for a quick encore. All in all, At Mount Zoomer is a remarkable achievement, and another soon-to-be classic from Wolf Parade.
At Mount Zoomer
[Sub Pop; 2008]
Any proper insomniac can recite the consequences of a few frantic, sheet-twisting nights: lethargy gives way to elation, reason falters, your teeth start to throb, and a vague sense of uneasiness gradually mutates into weird, wild-eyed paranoia. Wolf Parade doesn't seem like a band that routinely logs its eight hours: Apologies to the Queen Mary, the group's 2005 debut, was riddled with allusions to sleeplessness, and its follow-up, At Mount Zoomer, is no less restless-- it's a fraught, expansive ode to being way too awake. "We're tired," vocalist/guitarist Dan Boeckner admits, voice defeated. "We can't sleep."
While prepping At Mount Zoomer for release, the band reportedly promised Sub Pop "no singles," which-- no matter how attached you are to the notion of the LP as a singular document-- seems like a self-defeating vow. Paradoxically, for a statement of cohesion (take these tracks together, or don't take them at all), At Mount Zoomer is inherently disjointed, very much the product of two distinct, if exceptional, songwriters. Unluckily for Wolf Parade, the success of Boeckner and co-frontman Spencer Krug's side ventures (Handsome Furs and Sunset Rubdown, respectively) means their stylistic tics are now public information, and, as effectively as these dudes co-exist onstage, they're still singular creative forces.
The band's resolve to enlarge and intensify itself-- At Mount Zoomer seems focused on skewing darker, on sounding nastier, more perilous, and less straightforward than its predecessor, with elaborate arrangements and, you know, no singles-- translates into a lot of proggy diddling (and, ironically, less theremin). The approach yields predictably mottled results: At Mount Zoomer is both captivating ("Call It a Ritual", "Language City", "California Dreamer") and a little bit exhausting.
Recorded in Petite Église, the Quebec church owned by Arcade Fire, and produced by drummer Arlen Thompson, At Mount Zoomer is free from the influence of Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock, who produced the bulk of Apologies. Lyrically, familiar themes abound: multiple allusions to funerals, cities, dreams, empty rooms, and things that mean nothing. Wolf Parade are uniquely skilled at skewering contemporary (see also: urban, digital, accelerated) culture, and these songs relay a sense of being stuck in the wrong spot at the wrong time-- it's a tense, tenuous place to live.
"Soldier's Grin" opens with punchy keyboard and guitar, before Boeckner steps up to outline the scene: "In my head, there's a city at night," he sings, voice clear and desperate. Although the song's objectively optimistic, full of twittering synths and mewling guitars, it's also deeply anxious, and when Boeckner promises "what you know can only mean one thing" it seems pretty evident that that one thing's no good. "Call It a Ritual" is equally uneasy; Krug's quiet, opaque vocals are spectral and strange-- less piercing than Boeckner's, but way more atmospheric-- and the track descends into a dreamy, muddled haze that feels a little bit like sleepwalking. "California Dreamer", another Krug-penned cut, is epic in scope: Although it's only six minutes long, it's relentlessly squirmy, flitting from quiet, guitar-driven dirge to full-band throwdown.
Whereas Apologies to the Queen Mary closed with an unimpeachable tract of songs, from "Shine a Light" on, At Mount Zoomer fizzles and sags after its sixth track-- the record's grueling backend culminates with the contentious, 11-minute "Kissing the Beehive", a stubbornly unmelodic finale marked by a mush of throbbing guitars and histrionic vocals (ironically, it's the only track that Krug and Boeckner co-wrote). At Mount Zoomer is fractured and spastic, and at times, the band's ambition eclipses its strengths. Still, there's something about Wolf Parade's fragility that's profoundly relatable, and the sense that the entire operation could fall apart at any second-- that we're all tottering on the brink of total dissolution-- is as thrilling as it terrifying.
- Amanda Petrusich, June 17, 2008