Last night I had dinner with the molecular microbiologist Professor Keith Gull. He discussed the information overload that has taken shape in academia his lifetime, and how it has affected the working methods of his students. Over spinach and egg, Professor Gull identified the need to be able to extract the relevant points from the unprecedentedly vast mass of material now available as a key skill in the contemporary data-dense environment. Tangentially, it seems to me that all 21st century musicians are likewise potentially swamped in a vast range of influences largely unavailable to their recent predecessors.
This World Wide Web that you all have now has made pretty much everything that ever was available, by legal or illegal means. But Wolf People are one of the few groups to funnel this oceanic torrent of endless sonic information into a fine and purposeful point. And that fine and purposeful point is their second album proper, Fain.
The peripheral early seventies British underground influences that Wolf People acknowledge on their website playlists – Linda Hoyle and Affinity, Arzachel, Tractor, Beau, Thundermother, High Tide, May Blitz, Arcadium and The Way We Live – were all familiar to me as a post-punk fundamentalist teenager in the early 80s, but in name only. Theirs were the already culturally obsolete gatefold albums with gloomily meaningful sleeves spilling out of the racks in the second hand shop in the underpass by Moor Street Station at low low prices, that our generation thrust aside in search of 12″ singles by angry ironists on the Rough Trade and Vindaloo labels. This dopey beardo wizard shit was kulturally verboten. It was never coming back, granddad, and without the open-access information experiment of the newfangled Internet, could a band like Wolf People ever have sounded quite the way it does?
“I don’t think it could have, or at least not in the form it’s taken now”, concedes Wolf People’s founder, vocalist, and co-guitarist (with Joe Hollick) Jack Sharp. “We were very much involved in collecting records and sampling, and interested in ’60’s and ’70’s subculture (as well as hip hop) in the “pre internet age”, but things were a lot harder to come by when you didn’t have the almost brain numbing instant access to pretty-much-everything-ever that you have now. Getting involved in online record collecting communities around 2002/2003, when we were in our early twenties, had a massive impact on Tom and myself, and it still provides a lot of inspiration and ways of finding music that is still off the radar even now.”
Having burrowed out of Bedford in the mid-noughties, Wolf People are a formidable hybrid. Yes, they’re crate-digging record collector completists with time on their hands and the sort of international file-trader connections that mean they can legitimately say “There has always been a 1970s Finnish progressive rock influence on our music.” But, crucially, they’re also dedicated musicians demonstrating, with their zen-mastery of Tom Verlaine type twin guitar starbursts and Pythagorean progressive rock timekeeping, the lost art of what long dead rock scribes used to call ‘chops’.
“We’ll probably look back and realise what idiots we were being!” volunteers Sharp. “I suppose it’s strange that we’re using the internet as a tool to reference a craft of music making that would otherwise be extinct or buried.” If only Wolf People been able to enjoy the housing benefit scams, generous student grants, aristocratic major label patronage, and communal squat culture that bought their spiritual Seventies forebears endless practice time. Had they been relieved of the obligation to sustain themselves, we’d have seen Wolf People’s debut mini-masterpiece, 2010’s Steeple, some years ahead of schedule.
I’m worried I’ve made Wolf People sound like mere historical revivalists, the prog-blues-folk-rock equivalent of those people who dress up as cavaliers at weekends and lose once more battles already lost long ago. Crucially, there’s something else entirely going on in their rehearsal room. We know the technology now exists to clone and revive an extinct woolly mammoth from DNA found in frozen specimens perfectly preserved in arctic ice-fields, which is arguably partly what Wolf People have done, referencing artists on the missing presumed extinct Holyground label, for example. But what if we were to take that mammoth and cross-breed it with a similarly re-vivified sabre tooth tiger?
It was on the closing pair of tracks on Wolf People’s last album Steeple, namely Banks of Sweet Dundee Parts 1 and 2, that their unique selling point became clear. Wolf People are positing an alternate early Seventies musical reality that nearly, but never quite actually, happened. Yes, Fairport Convention’s A Sailor’s Life, the extended epics of Trees’ unbeatable 1970 album On The Shore, and bits of Carolanne Pegg’s ’73 solo album, posit a British folk music informed by then contemporary rock practice, with extended modal soloing and driving rhythm sections.
And yes, the title track alone of Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die album, and The Battle Of Evermore from Led Zeppellin IV, and bits of the and the inexplicably English sounding German band Carol of Harvest’s eponymous 1978 release, suggest a more densely entwined, more fertile, future for this unlikely crossbreed. But it was a future that was never quite fulfilled, Traffic wandering off into a flutey jazz fog, and Led Zeppellin climbing the Giant’s Causeway to an immortality not tainted by folksy flavors.
“I think subconsciously, we’re trying to make the type of records we would like to find,” says Jack. “I love Trees and Fairport and Mr Fox, but I find myself thinking that there aren’t enough groups like that, and sometimes I want it to be heavier. So we’ve tried to stretch both the folk and the heavy element as far as it will go in either direction and see what happens.” I think the modest Wolf Person is selling the band short. Fain doesn’t sound stretched. Its eight substantial songs sound, given the incompatible diversity of its sources, implausibly integrated.
Empty Vessels skewers California ’60s folk rock rhythm guitar with Hollick’s insurgent soloing; All Returns’ truncated hairy funk licks, from bassist Dan Davis and drummer Tom Watt, suddenly bristle into the red, finally unable to contain themselves, bursting free of a psalmodic structure, like The Stooges’ We Will Fall re-tooled by jazz monks; When The Fire Is Dead In The Grate is the album’s first stone classic, a funky folk-metal workout that trails off into a compellingly extended coda, both guitarists circling and dovetailing and spiraling; Athol is a downbeat minor key boogie, like an uncommonly reflective Canned Heat gone native somewhere in the Suffolk fens.
Massed witches’ sabbat backing vocals swell and rise under the arching leads of the painfully disciplined Hesperus, the song dissolving into a peat bog superfuzz sphagnum moss sludge; Answer drapes hop-harvest harmonies over pointillist pin pricks of lead guitar; Thief’s Can-style atomic bomb blast opening spills over analogue synth noise into an all-but unaccompanied plaintive folk ballad vocal, that breaks down into collapsing arpeggios of twin guitars; and NRR sounds like it was written to make Hell’s Angels, and their molls, attending an outdoor blues-rock/rock-blues festival in a disused WWII airfield in 1973, do that dance where they bend sideways and bump their butts together, the rather self-conscious set closer that would once have provoked mass applause and the ritualized discarding of bras.
Music fans like to speculate on what-if’s. What if The Fall had followed Hex Enduction Hour with more of the same, instead of switching track to escape expectation? What if The Buzzcocks had held on to and harnessed the high art aspirations of Howard Devoto alongside the pop art punch of Pete Shelley? What if Jimi Hendrix had made that album with Miles Davis? What if Television had run in the songs for their belated 3rd album live, and found all the jumping-off points they discovered in the years spent woodshedding Marquee Moon? What if all the great songs the final line-up of The Byrds squandered in half-realised solo projects had made one last brilliant band album? And so on.
If you’ve ever listened to those furtive early ’70s fusions of folk and rock and wondered if there was another way those superficially incompatible genres might have intertwined, then Wolf People offer an answer, with Fain’s patchouli-scented stews of perfurmed garden pre-punk, each shadowed by a creeping deep country darkness of backwater occult imagery, utilitarian King James Bible lyricism, and knowing nods to primordial melodies, that already lurk deep in the collective subconscious. Re-organising the re-available past, Wolf People cast a cup of bones against the back wall, and play the runes in the patterns they fall in.