Hello Beautiful Nothing, the sophomore effort from Seattle band Wall of Ears, got a lot of play (and inclusion in our list of 10 Best PNW albums of 2017) in this neck of the woods. Simply put, it was psychedelic pop that combined a beguiling atmosphere of sensory exploration with concise pop smarts, to near perfection.
Following in the footsteps of everyone from Wire to The Grateful Dead, Ears leader Chris Lott then guided his band into the outer reaches of experimentation. The band’s 2020 follow-up, Beyond Thought – Live in Seattle, provided a snapshot of Lott and company’s current (future?) mission statement. Like any experimental record worth its salt, Beyond Thought hurtled everything including the kitchen sink at the wall sonically. Guitar skronk, drumming that roamed all over the time-signature map, keyboards that sounded like echoes in a subterranean cave, free-jazz jamming, and some of Lott’s most unhinged falsetto singing combined to create a dense and sometimes impenetrable wall of sound—which was part of the point, I reckon.
On the face of it, Wall of Ears have largely returned to the strange tinctured well of psych-rock improv on their newest full-length, It Is. But the (slightly) more focused approach could be an attempt to split the difference between Hello Beautiful Nothing’s relative accessibility and the band’s current penchant for damn-the-torpedoes improvisation. Then again, it might not be.
Either way, It Is reigns in the most untethered indulgences of its predecessor, clocking in at a concise 42 minutes and boasting individual tracks that all stay at a manageable (read: not 8-minute long) length. Better yet, there’s a sense of craft and imagination here that’s legitimately sharpened the band’s focus. Beyond Thought proved that this entire four-piece could play like demons, but an awful lot of it felt more like enthusiastic but empty jamming than legitimate experimentation.
Seemingly on a whim, Lott threw some musical curve balls into the lineup on It Is. Those wrinkles have forced the band to bring some musicality and command of atmosphere to match their formidable chops. And it results in some great moments.
Wall of Ears largely improvised It Is, but the album benefits from the extra care the band’s leader put into his voice here. Lott re-recorded, polished, and layered the vocals, so the album’s lead track, “Sleeptalkin’,” begins with a haunting bit of ethereal, shoegaze-inspired singing before turning into a soaring bit of space rock sung in a confident, faux-British baritone. The same strings that cradle the song’s surreal and lovely opening words skitter away and soften the chaos of the fadeout. “Dimensionless” clicks even more, with what sounds like an elegant string section (mellotron?) sighing out a legit ravishing melody. Passages like this thread through most of It Is’s ten restless pieces like flashes of sunlight amidst the tumult of one ugly-assed storm.
Don’t get me wrong: This is a largely improvised piece of work, so its welcome unpredictability periodically invites indulgent jamming to wander in like a wasted college kid at Hempfest. “Eureka” finds Lott layering his vocals until he sounds like Brian Wilson impersonating every string instrument in a horror movie score, but that power of that creativity gets undercut when the band periodically brackets it with meandering solos.
It Is feels like a surprising spiritual blood-kin to Document and Eyewitness, a 1981 live album by legendary post-punk band Wire that’s always held a soft spot in my heart. The latter record captured that British quartet at their most ridiculously indulgent and often willfully atonal—serving up a jumble of diffuse fragments in the place of actual songs. Amidst its shaggy-assed roughness, however, dwelt enough flashes of melodic beauty and real power to forgive the meandering and self-indulgence.
Significantly, Wire sifted through the sonic crazy-quilt of Document and Eyewitness two decades later, sculpting the best fragments into one of their most fully-realized albums, 2013’s Change Becomes Us.
At its best, It Is suggests that Wall of Ears are likewise headed towards a similar sonic breakthrough. In the end, the band’s latest makes for one hell of a compelling repeat listen—flaws, indulgences, and all. And I’ll lay even money that, whatever path Chris Lott and his fellow space travelers take going forward, it’ll be well worth joining them for the ride.
It Is is now available in digital and physical form on Wall of Ears‘ Bandcamp site.