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Wolf Eyes, "Strange Days II"

cover imageI am very much enjoying this new chapter of Wolf Eyes' career, as this second release on their Lower Floor imprint is every bit as deliciously wrong-sounding as Undertow, yet breaks some intriguing new ground.  The world is littered with iconic noise artists who flogged their one great idea to death and it is refreshing to see that John Olson, Nate Young, and James Baljo seem quite hellbent on avoiding that fate these days.  Granted, Strange Days II is only a lean 20-minute EP, but it is enough of a compelling detour to justify its existence despite that: it may be brief, but it is a complete and coherent statement.  As with most recent Wolf Eyes fare, it would be quite a stretch to call Strange Days II "noise," yet the trio definitely apply the genre’s tactics to unleash a corroded, thudding, and dystopian caricature of jazz (or at least a pleasingly gnarled twist on Zoviet France-style sci-fi tribalism).

Lower Floor Music

The meat of this EP is essentially just the opening 12-minute "011817," so it would probably be more accurate to describe Strange Days II as "the hot new Wolf Eyes single" rather an EP.  It is followed by a shorter second piece in the same vein ("011317"), but it kind of feels like a looser, proto-version of its predecessor.  I am totally fine with that though: substantial releases are nice, but so are releases that just have one or two great songs to deliver and do not linger around overstaying their welcome (I am the absolute last person who would complain about Wolf Eyes belatedly embracing quality over quantity).  Of course, Wolf Eyes are still Wolf Eyes, so "011817" still feels more like an improvisatory and amorphous vamp rather than a tightly crafted composition, but that looseness works in their favor here, adding to the lurching, distended, and diseased-sounding feel of the piece.  The only real surprise is that John Olson's vaguely Eastern-sounding flute theme is quite melodic and languorous, which makes an intriguing juxtaposition with the underlying groove.  That has led to at least one major reviewer favorably comparing Strange Days II to Miles Davis, which is definitely something I did not see coming.  My favorite aspect is definitely that juxtaposition of two seemingly incompatible aesthetics, but I also enjoy the stuttering, bass-heavy throb of the piece on its own, as it seems to be constantly stumbling and changing.  In fact, it favorably recalling Chris Carter’s rhythmic genius in Throbbing Gristle: the imperfections and idiosyncrasies make the beat sound like the work of massive, clanking, wheezing, and sentient machine rather a loop or programmed pattern.  I am a huge fan of brokenness and precarious structure in music, which are certainly two areas where Wolf Eyes excel.

As alluded to earlier, the shorter "011317" feels like a slightly less successful earlier stab at the exact same thing, but it also feels far more deserving of classic jazz comparisons.  For one, Olson unleashes an impressively competent and melodic saxophone solo, albeit one leaning much more towards free jazz.  Also, the percussive element collapses into skittering, clattering entropy rather than cohering into a throbbing pulse.  It is certainly not fluid or virtuosic enough to feel like real free jazz (nor would Wolf Eyes want that), but the layered chaos and guitar noise at least approximate something like an industrial-damaged The Dead C jamming with a saxophone player.  That is admittedly an aesthetic I can get behind, but it is not quite as impressive as a melancholy flautist being flattened by strafing swoops of electronic noise and a mechanized, stumbling juggernaut of a groove (which is what the first piece sounds like).  Also, the opener sneakily conceals a very deliberate arc amidst all its shambling and sputtering, as guitarist Jim Baljo unveils a repeating and epic-sounding motif in the piece’s final moments to pull it all together into a climax of sorts (rather than just meandering into silence).

Obviously, the sheer brevity of Strange Days II ensures that it is a fairly minor release in the voluminous Wolf Eyes’ canon, but it certainly does not sound like anything else coming out these days and "011817" would easily secure a place in my imaginary, self-curated best-of collection.  In a perverse way, Wolf Eyes have transcended their role as the DIY flagbearers for the darkest corners of the American underground and become the possible sound of the future–certainly not the future that anyone wants, mind you, but a hopelessly broken, dark, and post-apocalyptic one.  With Strange Days II, it is easy to envision Wolf Eyes as the house band in a bombed-out subterranean cabaret in something like Total Recall, raggedly and lethargically playing "jazz" to a drugged, dead-eyed crowd with a rusted and salvaged battery of inappropriate equipment that makes all the wrong sounds.