Album Review: Wax Machine – Hermit’s Grove: An exotic blend of psych-toned Tropicalia and elemental jazz rock

The Breakdown

Wax Machine are not so much taking a new direction as finding their real home, psych-toned tropicalia and singed rock fusion. Music that’s flush with colour, rippling with texture and swathed in lo-fi exotica.
Batov Records 8.7

When you hear the phrase ‘recorded in a small closet above a mortuary’ you’re thinking ‘I know where this is going’. Dark, experimental, doom shrouded and drone laden probably fits the immediate profile. Well Wax Machine’s ‘Hermit’s Grove’ defies those superficial impressions. It may well have been ‘recorded in a small closet above a mortuary’ but the Brighton combo’s second album, available from 1st July on Batov Records, is an elemental, sun-blessed wash of psych-toned bossa and singed rock fusion, flush with colour but rippling with texture.

Revolving around the singular mind of project leader Lau Ro, Wax Machine caused heads to turn with their debut ‘Earthsong of Silence’. Released in 2020 on Brooklyn’s Beyond, Beyond is Beyond Records, it stirred together Harvest-era folkadelica, krautrock clarity, a prog mindset and a shot of tropicalia. It’s those very Brazilian roots that Lau journeys back to on ‘Hermit’s Grove’, pushing the music of his birth country to the forefront and draping the Wax Machine sound with an added swathe of lo-fi exotica.

It’s the band’s bold cover of the seminal Baden Powell/ Vinicius De Moraes classic ‘Canto de Lemanja’ that most graphically acknowledges Lau Ro’s intentions and inspirations for this second album . Reverently acoustic, their version flows sensibly close to the original, from the opening sounds of breaking oceans to the earth and sky vocal pairing, Lau’s life worn baritone alongside Ella Russell’s airborne clarity. If anything Wax Machine aim for some gentler contemplation by keeping the soft percussive roll steady through the song, only brushing in atmospheric details with hints of chimes, bells and blocks. The track feels fundamental to the record. The pull of the sea, the resonance of a homeland Lau Ro left behind as a child and the uncertainties of unstable futures drift as recurring themes within ‘Hermit Grove’s deeper story.

The breezy bossa of ‘Guardian of Eden’ is blown in by a similar tide. Starting celestial with bird song, plaintive strums and piano trills, the track hits hustle as Isobel Jones’s hovering flute begins the swoop upwards. From there the trajectory takes a tropicalia twist, more electric, bass motored and glistening with sixties pysch-pop brightness. Again the vocals shine, Lau’s authentically retro bubbling vibrato balanced by Jones’s clean and sharp ‘easy listening’ swoons. There’s joy, quirkiness and a slight unsettling edge here, in the best Os Mutantes tradition.

That ability to muster lightness and tension in the same song is a key part of Wax Machine’s appeal. ‘Springtime’ eases in with a breezy samba before veering off on a fuzzy wah-wah curve, spiralling into wiry Brazilian pop and angular lounge jazz via Freddie Willatt’s raucous tenor. Lau even sneaks a Syd Barrett tinge to his echoing ‘There they go’ vocal. This assured confidence to mix and match oozes through every cut, stoked by Lau wisely keeping with core players from the debut (Toma Sapir on drums and the already tagged flautist Isobel Jones) then introducing an astute selection of additional instrumentalists. Listen to the reclining sway of the sultry ‘Tears From The Skies’ and recognise the exquisite refreshment that Adam Campbell’s electric piano brings to the ensemble’s palate.

Such musical dynamism has always been a feature of Wax Machine’s sound but perhaps a new dimension that ‘Hermit’s Grove’ offers is Lau’s more personal and direct approach to songwriting. In his liner notes the band leader reflects that ‘this album was made during a transformational time in my life’ and such an emotional thrust clearly pushes through the funky disguise of ‘All I Can Do’. For all its head bobbing catchiness there’s something tenderly cathartic when the singer muses ‘Hmm…time is moving’ then convinces himself to ‘let it go leave it in the past’.

Still despite the title, this isn’t a record that’s indulgently self-centred . Lau Ro is speaking out beyond himself when he’s talking about reconnection. The shimmering nu-psych of ‘Face All’ with its Tame Impala groove, sax skronks and tight rock riffs looks to a different way of thinking – yes it’s progressive whatever way you look at it. To continue the narrative, the album’s closer ‘Gaian Dream’ uses its powerful soundscape to give time for resolution. Ethereal and expansive, this floating airy jam has momentum and purpose from its Jah Wobble bass foundations to the burbling synths and fermenting chants. With connections back to ‘Yeti’ era Amon Düül, it’s Wax Machine at their most transformational, a gorgeous and lasting pause for thought.

So ‘Hermit’s Grove’ finds Lau Ro and Wax Machine not so much taking a new direction as finding their real home, away from any genre bound routines. Eclectic but grounded, inventive but comprehendible, this is the sound of a band settling into their stride…the challenge will be for us punters to keep up.

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