I am only a casual Wolf Eyes fan, so the bulk of their endless tide of releases passes by me unnoticed. Every couple of years, however, they unleash something big to remind everyone that they are just as relevant as ever and continuing to tirelessly evolve. The latest salvo in that vein is ostensibly this one, which also happens to be the inaugural release for the band's new Lower Floor Music imprint. Stylistically, the two bookend pieces share a lot of common ground with the better moments of 2013's No Answer : Lower Floors, eschewing noise for something resembling deconstructed rock music that has gone sick and wrong. When it sticks to that template, Undertow is quite good, but the more abstract and sketchlike material separating its two highlights makes for a somewhat uneven whole.
There are a lot of esoteric strains of underground music colliding on Undertow's opening title piece, but none of them feels particularly like noise. That is neither a good nor bad thing, but James Baljo-era Wolf Eyes can seem an awful lot like a rock band (or at least a "trip metal" band, as they would describe themselves). Structurally, "Undertow" is basically just a simple and slow stoner metal bass line endlessly repeated beneath Nate Young's deadpan, misanthropic, and existential dread-filled monologue ("I count every deceit as they repeat like receipts of doom"). There is some distinctively un-rock activity happening in the periphery, however, like subtly buzzing electronics and reverb-soaked howls from John Olson’s self-built wind instruments. Still, for the most part, the piece essentially feels like a skeletal Black Sabbath jamming with a terminally depressed beat poet and a heroin-impaired saxophonist. That is perhaps not an aesthetic that many are clamoring to replicate, but it works just fine for Wolf Eyes: though Young’s vocals probably verge on (possibly intended) self-parody, their blasé cool fits well with the broken, stuck-in-neutral feel of the groove. Also, in a weird way, the piece is a lot hookier than most of Wolf Eyes' deconstruction-happy contemporaries such as The Dead C. It is almost like they could casually toss off catchy songs if they felt like it, but are not particularly happy about it at all.
Of course, the next three pieces show that Wolf Eyes are even more adept at tossing off non-catchy non-songs. Clocking in under two minutes, "Laughing Tides" is little more than a forgettable interlude of strangled whines and creaking strings over a random-sounding backdrop of whooshes and squelches. It is hard to believe that they did not have anything stronger that they could have included instead, but it is probably just a space-filler necessitated by the vinyl format. Still, the following "Texas" is roughly more of the same, though it is twice as long and at least throws in an eerie flute-like melody. It kind of sounds like a rotting orchestra of the undead tuning up for a performance that never starts. Remarkably, the perplexing trend of false-starts continues unabated with "Empty Island," which sounds like a Jamaican dub producer who willfully set out to do everything as wrongly as possible: the groove is sluggish and gutted, the percussion is non-existent, and Olson’s ghostly haze of horns occasionally duels with Baljo's anachronistic metal-damaged noodling and shredding. Exasperatingly, none of those pieces are particularly derivative, uninspired, or indicative of a lack of vision. Rather, they all just kind of stop before developing into anything substantial enough to be rewarding.
Thankfully, that trend is reversed with the closing epic "Thirteen," which gamely revisits the slow-motion groove and spoken-word aesthetic of "Undertow," but stretches out for almost 14 minutes. Instead of a strong bass line this time around, there is a wobbly and gnarled repeating chord, yet otherwise the template is the same. The sole significant difference is merely that Olson, Young, and Baljo actually hang around long enough to use their groove as a jumping off point into something more. In this case, the "something more" is increasingly distorted and warped vocals and an almost free-jazz degree of howling and echoing horns from Olson. Disorientingly, Baljo sometimes seems like he is playing a completely different song when he is not laying down murky slabs of power chord sludge, which adds nicely to the escalating sense of wrongness and disquiet. At its zenith, it sounds an awful lot like a flock of drugged geese circling a malfunctioning tape player, an aesthetic I very much enjoy. In fact, pieces like "Thirteen" are exactly why I keep buying Wolf Eyes albums. I just wish there were more of them here. In fact, I wish there was more of anything here, as Undertow is under half an hour long and almost half of it feels like filler thrown together in an afternoon. I suppose that is the fundamental caveat with Wolf Eyes though: they could not have churned out 300 releases if they made a habit of lingering on ideas long enough to bring out their full potential. As a fan, my expectation is merely that an occasional gem will sometimes surface from the endless messy torrent spewing forth from Wolf Eyes’ bleak and disturbed collective psyche. With “Thirteen” at least, they have added one more to the pile.