One of the best albums of 2017 is a full-length debut by a band that broke up before it was released.
No one seems to know, or is telling, why New York post-punks WALL (Vanessa Gomez – drums, Vince McClelland – guitar, Elizabeth Skadden – bass, Samantha York – lead vocals, guitar) broke up after releasing one critically acclaimed EP (WALL), wowing crowds at the 2016 South by Southwest festival, and recording what appears will be their only full-length record – Untitled. Perhaps they felt they’d said all they wanted to say. Perhaps they found out the music businesses wasn’t what they wanted after all. Perhaps it was the classic “artistic differences.” I’m not sure we’ll ever know, but there are hints on Untitled – a scorching post-punk testament to desperate times and desperate measures.
The first lyrics on Untitled are “Everyone looking ‘round, looking to get high. I was looking ‘round, looking to get high.” on “High Ratings.” The band drills out the jagged punk angles they had mastered so early around a song about people looking for validation in a world in which others are easily obscured by our narcissism.
“Shimmer of Fact” unveils WALL’s love for Joy Division. The reverbed vocals about a relationship gone wrong after moving from the friend zone to the lover zone include “Something went wrong.” and “We crossed those lines.” The song “Save Me” has shared male and female vocals (“You wanna walk away, now that’s it over?” / “Save me from myself.”) and powerful riffs that underline the frantic lyrics about danger and the thrills it can bring.
“(Sacred) Circus” continues the Joy Divison-like bass, but the guitars float into shoegaze glory, and then crash into punk rock, as they sing about love, lust, and jealousy. Part of the chorus is “Nothing in this life is sacred.” That includes, by the way, our expectations of WALL and what they had planned for their musical career. “Wounded at War,” with its guitars that sound like they’re melting in the sun, is both a salute to homeless veterans and a punch in the gut to the institutions that trained them. “Go home, soldier. Back to the war that bred you, soldier,” they sing.
“Everything In Between” sounds like it belongs in a rare 1980’s VHS vampire movie. Trust me, you’ll understand when you hear the heavy bass, racing pulse beat, and distorted guitars. “Charmed Life” (a Half Japanese cover) has a great saxophone riff throughout it. “Watch everything you do and everything you say,” they sing as they mix surf rock, post-punk, no wave, and 50’s love songs. The song ends with an abrupt stop by the band and York saying, “I guess I’m leavin’.”
On “Weekend,” she sings, “The weekend, the weaker I am.” Partying has become too much of a chore. “I can’t live this way,” she sings while the band (who sizzle for the whole track) agrees to go with her and “skip town.” “Turn Around” has York telling an admirer to “pull yourself together” and forget about even trying to chat her up or risk death.
The album ends with “River Mansion,” a gorgeous piece of post-punk shoegaze that has the band wishing for good things ahead but knowing they might end up not getting them. “We built this dream on a hill…A storm is brewing. I’m safe in the house, locked in a dream.” Perhaps WALL realized they’d already achieved the dream of expressing their art (and getting critical success for it) and knew it was time to leave the mansion they’d created before success flooded and drowned them (“I’m laying in the river and the rain is getting thicker,” York sings). Maybe WALL sensed that success wasn’t going to be good for them. Maybe there was infighting (“When our eyes meet, and you’re lying through your teeth. When our eyes meet, and I’m lying through my teeth.”). Maybe they knew going out on top was going to be the best, safest option.
Or maybe it’s all a lark. We won’t know until they or their label decide to tell us, if they ever do. Until then, we have Untitled to give us clues and questions without answers. Sometimes the mystery is more exciting than the solution, and perhaps that was WALL’s message the whole time.
Keep your mind open.
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