When stories go on long enough, certain plot points tend to recur. Think about a TV series like The Simpsons — how many “The Simpsons go to (BLANK)!” episodes can there possibly have been over the show’s 27 seasons? David Sackllah’s recent oral history of Michigan’s Wolf Eyes featured the clever and appropriate title “The Neverending Story.” Though The Simpsons have Nate Young and co. beat by seven years, the group’s nearly 20-year history has similarly echoed itself from time to time. But that’s bound to happen when you release dozens and dozens of CD-Rs, live recordings, splits, and cassettes, not to mention official LPs.
When the announcement was made that Wolf Eyes’ newest record, I Am a Problem: Mind in Pieces would be released on relatively “safe” rock label Third Man Records, some fans reacted with shock. But, much the way new viewers of The Simpsons aren’t stuck comparing new episodes to their predecessors, those fans were likely not on board for Wolf Eyes’ first release on Sub Pop. True to form, jumping on Jack White’s label doesn’t take away from Young, John Olson, and Jim Baljo’s staunch weirdness. Dirge-like opener “Catching the Rich Train” and its woodwind squiggle-squonk, chattering white noise, and grim groans cement that immediately.
Following that, though, “Twister Nightfall” could pass for a Velvet Underground cover with its simple plodding percussion, droning noise, single chord, and vocal melody. This straightforward track isn’t a complete anomaly for Wolf Eyes, but it certainly embodies their recent embrace of the heading “trip metal” as opposed to noise — there is structure here, and its repetitive drone and mystic darkness work like a drill bit to open some heavy chakras. For a long time, the group had been my go-to example when asked what I meant when I told people I loved noise music. “I think the rules and fraternity made noise stale at the time,” Olson explained in that oral history. Noise often gets stuck into an escalation of abrasion and grotesquerie; though I Am a Problem will scrape your eardrums at times, and has its fair share of grime, dread, and cold sweats, trip metal (though chosen due to its lack of antecedent and baggage) fits far better than noise.
But this isn’t the first time Wolf Eyes have acknowledged the lines they were coloring near, or sometimes even inside. 2004’s superb Burned Mind (their Sub Pop debut) may be their most accessible record. The production cleared some of the lo-fi filth to reveal more clearly the pummeling contents. 2009’s Always Wrong lifted Young’s vocals into some semblance of near-familiarity, while 2013’s No Answer: Lower Floors was the first official record to feature Baljo on guitar. Rather than rile in chaos, his steady, mantra-like playing has furthered the trip metal experimentation, giving a fluid though identifiable base for Olson and Young’s experimental woodwind and electronic noise to latch onto. I Am a Problem, though recorded prior to the decision to release through Third Man, fits into that particular strand of Wolf Eyes tradition: spooky and painful, but relatively approachable.
Highlight “Enemy Ladder” comes from the same cauldron that birthed Liars’ They Were Wrong So We Drowned. Its propulsive tribal rhythm, howling guitars, and shouted vocals feel like running through a demon-infested forest as the bonfire spills out of control behind you. Though sliced and decayed, there’s even an honest-to-goodness guitar solo at the heart of “Cynthia Vortex AKA Trip Memory Illness”.
Though it may at times feel like a solid step towards approachability, I’d guess Wolf Eyes’ neverending story will feature more than a few walls of challenging noise, freeform jazz spatters, and seemingly endless drone in the future. They put in the work at an incredible pace and don’t seem to get stuck; they release so many projects (and I haven’t even mentioned the dozens of side projects) that they might not even remember whether each new album sounds like one from three years ago, or covers similar ground, or is unlike anything they’ve ever done. In that same way, I Am a Problem isn’t the anomaly it might at first seem, but it is also its own beast. And a powerful, eccentric beast it is, snarling and stalking the shadows.
Essential Tracks: “Enemy Ladder”, “Catching the Rich Train”