Label: Tri Angle
Irish black metal trio Altar of Plagues played their final show at Poland’s UNSOUND festival this past October, an event which also saw the live debut of multi-instrumentalist and vocalist James Kelly’s solo project WIFE. Now mere months later he has unleashed his full-length debut, What’s Between, a commercial yet dark pop record full of atmosphere and texture.
Even compared to the more atmospheric moments of his previous band, WIFE is unabashedly a pop project. What’s Between may explore the interstices of Kelly’s various influences, but at its core remains songcraft. Each individual track is suggestive of a mood or a feeling, with the execution varying between slow churning beats and mid-tempo melodies. The spatial and textural treatments, no doubt strongly influenced by producer and label-mate Bobby Krlic (better known as The Haxan Cloak), serve something of a superficial role. Nonetheless the production elevates what otherwise might be a dull record into something more interesting.
Kelly’s collaboration with Krlic should be a promising partnership, and certainly contributed to my expectations for What’s Between. The Haxan Cloak’s 2013 LP Excavation was one of the best dark ambient records of the year, so surely Krlic was an ideal collaborator to help an artist like Kelly deliver his solo debut. Altar of Plagues played a cold, almost restrained, form of black metal with rhythmic use dissonance and a melodic undercurrent. They were also noted for their use of atmosphere, with slowly unfurling passages almost akin to the early music of Ben Frost. I won’t speculate as to the dissolution of the band, but it was always clear that Kelly was yearning to explore sounds and styles of songwriting that could not fit into the notoriously protective metal scene.
Metal is pop music, regardless of fans’ insistence otherwise, so I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with someone like Kelly branching out and exploring other forms of pop music. In order to grow as an artist, it’s practically inevitability that Kelly leave the confines of metal behind. Over the last few years black metal has received increased critical attention, and the rise of less orthodox (some would say, “hipster”) bands such as Liturgy and Wolves in the Throne Room inspired outpourings of internet whining from (notoriously elitist) black metal fans. The theatre of black metal is more than just a spectacle for fans to gather around, it is “a metaphor for nonconformity that affirms dark, creative energies that orthodox political-religious-scientific thought would repress.” In short, the community has a lot invested in policing the borders of their club.
WIFE seems to be more driven by human emotion and personal expression than by adherence to any fixed identity. Aesthetically, the dark moods and powerful bass are still present, but inspired by bass music and dark techno rather than metal. Still, unlike Demdike Stare or Andy Stott, WIFE’s electronic music is unmistakably pop. The beat lays down a clear structure over which Kelly builds his melodious loops and gentle vocal lines. The sleek pop production, dance beats, and especially the sensual vocals come as a stark contrast to Kelly’s black metal days. Rather than a tortured howl, Kelly’s vocals are something closer to James Blake. Like Blake, the emotional resonance of each song seems to be the raison-d’être, though the sparse compositions aren’t so immediately inviting or rewarding.
The contrasting elements that went into the making of What’s Between have been worn down, the differences smoothed away leaving a mostly cohesive style. The spacious, slow moving opening track sets the tone for the rest of the record, but as it progresses the tempos vary as Kelly modestly branches out, some tracks very straightforwardly commercial and others more textural and almost ambient. “Dans Ce” is airy and inviting, building to quite a nice climax of looped vocals. As the title suggests, “Living Joy” is light and celebratory, a more mid-tempo tune that has grown on me with repeat listens. Songs like “Further Not Better” use repetition of lyrics like a mantra, with mixed results. None of the songs gripped me immediately, but the intricate production drew me in enough to keep listening.
I wouldn’t describe WIFE as light-hearted, though certainly the music is inoffensive and lacking in the abrasive elements that might put off casual listeners to metal or noise. Ultimately, What’s Between falls into an uneasy middle ground that leaves me feeling ambivalent. I can understand wanting to produce more commercial music that might draw a wider audience, but it’s not clear to me who the audience is for this is, exactly. Lacking memorable hooks or clever structures, What’s Between isn’t direct enough to satisfy the pop crowd. It’s lacking in hard edges, the rhythms are not aimed at the club, and while the atmosphere remains suggestive I don’t find the album as a whole particularly compelling.