Its difficult to envisage where Wild Beasts would be at this moment in time had The xx not pipped them to the first prize at last year's Mercury Music Awards. Ever since 'Two Dancers' landed in the summer of 2009 their star has risen somewhat from being a band that oozed potential to one of this nation's genuine musical treasures. What's more, in these times of regurgitating the past and enlisting more guests than a Bar Mitzvah could handle, Wild Beasts stand aloft as a unique entity of their own making, something of a rare and dying breed in the current climate.
Having re-located to the trendier than thou backwaters of Dalston, not to mention overdosed on more experimental electronic-based sounds than before, the ten songs that make up 'Smother' go beyond the realms of expectation garnered from either of its predecessors. Certainly anyone hoping for 'Two Dancers' mark two won't be disappointed. If anything this is an album that takes all the best bits from that breakthrough record and multiplies it tenfold.
Recorded in the remote corners of Snowdonia in North Wales, again enlisting the production skills of Richard Formby behind the mixing desk, 'Smother' is an engrossing collection that grows with every listen, each time demanding to be heard in full rather than separate individual parts. Indeed when the band made lead single 'Albatross' available a month earlier, eyebrows were raised at its slightly minimalist, downbeat persona compared to what had gone before. In the context of the album however, 'Albatross' makes perfect sense, elegantly welding the pensive 'Invisible' to the more ostentatious flutter of 'Reach A Bit Further' around 'Smother''s midpoint.
'Smother''s intentions are laid bare from the outset, 'Lion's Share' opening its door to an ebullient robotic Neu! influenced beat, a simple piano melody tempting Hayden Thorpe to utter "I take it in my mouth like a lion takes its game" with superfluous ambiguity. Tom Fleming's vocal part here, more of a question mark ("Boy, what are you running from?") to Thorpe's coy answers fits the song's dynamic perfectly, eventually gliding into the Eurofunk 'Bed Of Nails', possibly the most commercially accessible offering (in radio friendly terms) here. "I would lie anywhere with you" pleads Thorpe over a relentless synthesised three-chord sequence, its menacing build-up thrusting to the forefront with every passing second.
'Deeper', the first song on the record where Fleming takes the lead vocal, is a more sombre affair than anything they've put previously put down on tape. 'Loop The Loop' meanwhile is perhaps the clearest reference point to 'Two Dancers', its structure similar to 'All The Kings Men' while also recalling Yeasayer's '2030' in the process. More a tale of regret, Thorpe declaring "I've made enough enemies" at the song's preliminary stage, its clear 'Smother''s driving force was far from subtle, especially in light of the more extravagant 'Limbo, Panto' or buoyant 'Two Dancers'.
"I'm wondering how cruel I've been?" questions Thorpe to himself on the sensual 'Plaything', its percussion heavy, bass driven backbeat suggesting part of the band's East London experience has been spent savouring its warehouse parties until the early hours. While 'Invisible' recalls 'Empty Nest' in terms of its call for closure, 'Albatross' actually serves as their Massive Attack moment. All clever electronica and rigorous chord passages, Thorpe intoning, "I blame you for all of those things I've been through". It's worth mentioning the contribution of rhythm section Ben Little and Chris Talbot here, their tireless devotion to the cause often missed due to Thorpe and Fleming's prominent vocal interplay.
'Reach A Bit Further', possibly this song's 'Devil's Crayon' in the way its two protagonists alternate vocally between verse and chorus, once again takes 'Smother' on an insatiable pop journey many of their peers can only dream of. "Tearjerker, shadow lurker, wonder worker, reach a bit further." coos Thorpe, ever the dramatist to Fleming's more reserved demeanour. Drifting off succinctly into 'Burning', simply orchestrated glissando guitars echoing away politely in the background, 'Smother''s undisputed highlight lies in its closer, the seven-and-a-half minute opus 'End Come Too Soon'. Again both vocalists contribute delectably, its building instrumental bridge possibly serving as a welcome break from the song's raw intensity than anything else. "Break some bread," implores Thorpe, almost as a futile peace offering, the song ebbing and flowing through several boundaries before reaching its natural conclusion.
As records go, its difficult to criticise 'Smother' as there's little here to fault, other than it maybe not quite matching the immediacy of 'Two Dancers'. However, perseverance is the name of the game here, and after half a dozen listens its difficult to comprehend why anyone would bother with any other record, such is its pulling power. Ultimately, one would be disappointed if this weren't the album that finally elevates Wild Beasts into the big league, and to be brutally honest, there isn't another band on these shores more deserving of such widespread acclaim.
Another enticing masterpiece then, not that we've come to expect anything less.