Last week we talked about the concept of rituals, their meanings, and how they tie into our everyday lives without us necessarily even noticing them. Today we’re approaching the same subject but from a slightly altered angle, immediately diving into the musical side of things as well, to niftily avoid futile reiterations and losing the last bits of integrity I might have as a writer.
So, music. While the creation process frequently includes ritualistic tendencies and mindsets, being on the receiving end as a listener can often yield results akin to what some might characterize as a meditative experience. Emotional calm and mental clarity aren’t exactly too common these days, but humans as a species have still always strived to obtain at least some sense of awareness and lucidity, utilizing different activities, thought patterns, and practices to achieve just that. Meditation as a concept is equally elusive and impossible to strictly define as rituals are, and despite some ingrained differences, the two still have a lot in common. Being able to not only understand things, but to comprehend them, is a shared drive behind each praxis. The most profound beauty in both however, is their adaptivity. It’s all open for interpretations, open for anyone to draw their own meanings and purposes, and none are any more correct or faulty than any other.
This week’s artist is known to weave vast and colourful dream-like mood tapestries by means of distinct experimentations that have transformed them to a unique entity, with a self-defined tone and appearance. That’s why before reading any further, I highly recommend you to take a moment to clear your mind and proceed with filling it with the sullen and engulfing mass of sound awaiting in the embed below.
“Ascend” is the third track from Indifferent Rivers Romance End, the third album from the California based duo Wreck and Reference, who are our Weekly Featured Artist for this mentally chilly second week of March. I decided to lead with that since I feel like it perfectly encapsulates the sheer majesty of the band in question, and would act as a perfect gateway for you to step into their signature realm of fascinating and enchanting sounds and tempers.
Wreck and Reference are an experimental rock group whose output is remarkably difficult to explain with only few words, hence this article. As said above, the duo’s sound is very much singular and even extraordinary, as the kind of aural experience they offer with everything they do takes place ever so infrequently. So infrequently in fact, that sometimes you might find yourself wondering if it exists in the first place. But it does, of course. In this particular case, that overwhelming sensation stems from the seamless unison of shoegaze, noise, synthwave, rock, drone, and electronic music to name but a few of the major leanings Wreck and Reference are known for.
The pair has pursued this rather prominent amalgamation and all its eclectic corners since 2009. They’ve kept a consistent pace with new material ever since, having put out a dozen releases of varying caliber, starting with the EP Black Cassette on 2011. The band – consisting of Felix Skinner and Ignat Frege, and constituting on their own quirky way of seeing, hearing, and approaching things – have on numerous occasions stated how they’re mainly interested in composing music unlike anything else they’ve heard, in their own habitude and within their own frames. About how the unit came to be, they stated the following in an interview a decade ago;
‘Half of it has been a conceptual exercise in applying unconventional sounds to intense settings, half of it has been dripping sweat and losing hearing in small practice spaces, more often than not tearing down whatever components of our sound seems superfluous or derivative. Because there are only two of us and we both somehow ride the same aforementioned wavelength, we’re able to be very honest and critical, which allows us to distill our sometimes unruly ideas into something powerful and concise.‘
Now, you don’t need to be much of an aficionado to actually recognize this duality in Wreck and Reference‘s music. The dance between the shadows and the light seems to be a recurring compositional pattern in pretty much everything the band has done, but as to which side is winning at any given time is up for debate and interpretation. The songs’ lyrical themes mirror theses audible tendencies, often being introspective and dismal in nature, while also being presented from a gripping point of view. Take the opening lines from the track “Surrendering” for an example; ‘I prescribed myself a prone prolonged surrender / And proscribed my born role of friend and pretender.‘
One aspect that Wreck and Reference has been able to consistently convey on all of their releases is honesty. Given the experimental and unrestricted nature of their music, they never feel pretentious or come across as someone who would do all these weird things just for the sake of it. Call it intellect if you will, but what’s for sure is that the band manages to come very close to their listeners, regardless of their otherwise enigmatic and puzzling starting point. This notion was present already on the doom-driven Black Cassette, but later solidified on their debut album No Youth, in 2012. The distorted swells and haunting atmosphere of the opening track “Spectrum” demonstrate this feeling of immediacy to a good extent.
The album did not only push Wreck and Reference to a wider acclaim, but as time passed, it turned out to be a defining cornerstone and a point of reference for many other artists to come. The detailed collision of mellow and subtle ambiances with pummeling percussions and firm walls of droning noises topped with samples excelled in pretty much everything the band set out to do in the first place. That’s really not something you can say about every other band’s debut full-length, can you? Either way, Wreck and Reference‘s cogs were set in motion there and then, accelerating on the follow-up EP No Content the following year, reaching a new level of movement on the 2014’s Want.
While No Youth‘s main themes lied on self-punishment, on Want the band steered towards the idea of covert poison as sustenance, the consumption of false goods, and all the detrimental traits those entail. The album’s artwork depicts someone pouring a glass of sand to someone else, reflecting this idea in a tangible but striking fashion. Musically, the sense of melody and related developing atmospheres took the forefront, and is perhaps the most apparent on tracks like “Apollo Beneath the Whip” and “A Tax”, and especially on the closing epic “Apologies”. While these examples are the kind of tracks that offer a basis followed with a build up and eventually a release, the band consciously wrote an album that flourishes in incomplete musical narratives, cutting the listener off abruptly after luring them in with structural schemes, and deliberately leaving them dissatisfied, yearning for something that never comes. And there’s some strange attractiveness to that, as at best this blatant suddenness can still produce satisfactory results.
And not only have the band’s themes always been somber and grim, the matters they deal with stem from a ponderous place. Around Want‘s release, Frege elaborated on what fuels their borderline nihilistic motivation;
‘I feel most compelled to write music when I feel ostracized and misanthropic. It’s easy to be motivated by those feelings — helplessness, or whatever — to reassert control over your life. A tiny revenge against the presence of others. I don’t like to write music that much when I’m feeling positive, or maybe I don’t know how to make positive music. Still, the truth remains that things are solid blocks of morally neutral, sour-smelling shit, and none of it matters anyway. We’ll all be swallowed up, to be recycled into durable goods by future generations, and thrown away all over again. In light of that, our attitudes seem pretty reasonable. As far as the listener goes, if they’re on the same page, they will probably get down with this stuff… My only goal is entertaining myself while the world auto-erotically chokes itself with trash.‘
On Want, Wreck and Reference introduced a more firm human element, that only got stronger on the subsequent albums, and eventually grew to be one their single most dominating features. Indifferent Rivers Romance End flourishes in this newfound flair, and feels like an artistic culmination point on the band’s career so far. I should also say that it’s probably the one release of theirs that I’m the most fond of, which probably tints my opinion of it a bit. But even so, I’d find it unbelievably hard to digest if someone was to argue about the album’s significance to its genres to any lesser extent.
The opening half from “Powders” to “The Clearing” alone should be enough to overturn any hesitating head, granted that this album isn’t meant for any purists, but then again none of the Wreck and Reference‘s output is. The last mentioned track is a manifestation of the abrasive and disjointed synth pop aesthetic that reigns throughout the album, on which the band feels more complete than ever. As said earlier, their brand of cohesiveness can’t be negated in the slightest, but on Indifferent Rivers Romance End it’s simply uncanny. This staggering firmness might alienate few of you if the all over the place-ness of No Youth and Want is where you find comfort, however perverse that is. Should that be the case, there’s still songs like “Languish” and “Manifestos” that should tickle you right. Speaking of, I always get stuck to the former when listening to the album. You know, in a way where you listen to the full thing from start to finish, then go back to that one particular song and blast it on repeat for a dozen times. So that happens with this one. A lot.
The lyrical content has also evolved over time, and on the later albums the sadness and overall murkiness reaches disheartening proportions. And it’s the kind of introspective writing that really gets under your skin and makes you think. See the last few lines from “Languish” for an example;
‘Now both memory and forgetting are against me, and the anodyne of time is just the erosion of my brain. Like a photograph exposed in reverse, my neurons decouple in the dark. Too little and too late, to free me of these thoughts, of this unmeasured world. The mind against the body against the mind.‘
And I mean, just, fuck. Now imagine multiple album’s worth of that, and you just might have to take the following day off when you decide to properly dig into the band, if you haven’t already.
Fast forward to 2019 and the band’s newest effort, Absolute Still Life, an album that sees Wreck and Reference sinking deeper into the sickening pop vibes of Indifferent Rivers Romance End, incrementing atmospheres more akin to shoegaze than before, and simultaneously amping up the intensity. There’s a fair amount of noisy electronics deepening the impact, and maybe more general messing about than on the previous album, which kind of gives Absolute Still Life its own, custom feel. The band has made statements earlier about how the standard pop structure is usually the most rewarding one, and how it works for them. However, on this latest effort they seem to challenge that idea and themselves in the process. The songs on the album might feel more simplistic than before at first, but that soon proves to be nothing but a fallacy.
It takes a lot for a band to reinvent themselves over and over again, while staying true to their initial datum yet still managing to keep a solid evolutional curve, but that’s something that Wreck and Reference distinguish themselves with. Mastering both details as well as the big picture is no axiomatic trait, but should be quite self-evident with this band, especially if you’ve made it this far and have actually listened to them while trying to cope through these semiconscious sentence webs of mine. And once you’ve made it this far, you might as well follow Wreck and Reference on Facebook and Instagram, and listen to as well as support them via their Bandcamp. We’re all people of culture here after all, aren’t we now?