Editor's Rating

Wye Oak's 'No Horizon' presents us with boundless folk-rock choral vistas. It's brave and seductive and expansive. Where will they head next?

8.3

WYE OAK have never been a band to stand still; to let the silt of being typecast, the ploughing of the same groove, hem them in.

Debuting for Merge back in 2008 with If Children, they brought a real US alt.guitar edge to folk. Or was it a folksy edge to the alternative guitar sound?  Following album The Knot kept that guitar warmth and shimmer, heading into darker emotional waters; third LP Civilian introduced new synthy layers and upped the shoegazey guitar flame.

I remember seeing them in the aquatic conditions of the Green Man Festival 2010, and the warmth of that guitar shimmer made them one of only a handful of acts to really cut through the torrential rain. And my, the live sound they could fashion.

Forward to the present day, and this Friday, July 31st, sees the release of No Horizon, a new five-track EP, which spins them off somewhere else again, their evolving sound ever restless. 

Reportedly composed in a concentrated timeframe as 2018 turned to 2019, the five songs were unveiled in performance at the Merkin Hall in New York in collaboration with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

And it’s that collaboration that really hefts Wye Oak across into new territories, cresting a ridge on the way west.

We reviewed the teaser single and EP lead track “AEIOU” here a little while back. (You can watch the lyric video over there, too.) 

To reprise, we said that “ … shoegazily-informed guitars caress; Jenn intones impressionistic lyrics which seem to dance around the flaws of communication. ‘If you speak my name / Use my real name / The one I gave myself’ … ‘But mountains are not pictures of mountains / Or the letters that spell the word’.

“Jenn’s voice brings the quality of a very British, raw folk soliloquy, something of the free interpretation of Sandy Denny … it’s a very big, clever and brave musical vision, and repurposes and revitalises a strand of high progressive folk-rock for a new century, making it a form in which to address the now.”

Singer Jenn has said of this track: “[It’s] about the inadequacy of language. Language is bigger than the powers that try to control it, but we are so much bigger than language. We are so much more than anything that can be suggested with words.”

It’s big and bold, and Jen exults in a new spotlight, her voice lifting free, theatric; there is a real Broadway air about the musical panorama herein. 

Second track “No Place” begins on a piano figure which seems to be in one of those odd Celtic time signatures which never stop shifting and developing, rolling ever on. It’s the youth chorus who take centre stage here, and again, as with “AEIOU” the lyrical concerns seem to be concerned with identity, shifts in perception: “We do not shake hands … Who are you? Who am I? What’s happened to us?” Jenn declaims the lines of the chorus in a whisper. Synths stab. It’s as if lifted from an outré stage production about a civilisation in crisis. Or maybe: about us, now.

“Spitting Image” is built of the same high vocal drama, earthed by a filter-sweeping synth, all 2020-via-1980 high tonal glimmer that bites into that ever self-referencing, building choral expansiveness. Jen’s voice is like liquid, cascading down over the weave of voices. Wow.

“(cloud)” is a brief sketch, a prelude made of quivering synth glitch, leading into the EP’s closer, “Sky Witness”. Here Jen and the Brooklyn Chorus begin in melodic unity before the chorus begin to explore harmony lines … guitars run and chords are picked. Again language. “When the world is just a concept / Everything has hidden meaning / Trees in the wind are tapping / Morse code …” The moon is inscribed so too. There’s a dizzying web of signifiers out there. 

No Horizon is actually the first fruits of composition Jenn and Andy have made while living in the same place; drawing on immediacy and the methodology of making music across fibre-optics.

“There’s this sense of communion of making music with other people in real time and space, and that’s something that had eluded us on multiple levels,”said Jenn.

“One was purely geographical, where we were living so far from each other, but also we really got into this sort of electronic apparatus running different synths and drum machines and electronics. We need to find new ways to make it still feel vital and still feel new. And this is a part of that exploration.”

No Horizon serves, in title and musical scope, as a statement of intent, you feel. It’s as much future indie as it is recherche experimental classical as it is folk-rock. Where next? What isn’t in their scope to refashion and meld? It’s brave, expansive and melodically seductive.

No Horizon will be available here come Friday, and a luscious little object it is too. It comes in opaque vinyl in a transparent sleeve, overprinted in white. Rather yumsome.

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