I first witnessed, discovered really, Wild Beasts at Glasgow's Stag and Dagger Festival in 2010 on a complete whim. I had heard the name around, based on reviews of their then latest record Two Dancers and knew a little of their reputation for their, let's say, eccentric nature through their unconventional instrumentation and dueling falsetto vocalists, rather like an indie rock Blood Brothers.
It is without exaggeration, however, that I can safely say it was one of the best live performances I've ever witnessed, to this day. The quartet had the air of a Clockwork Orange-esque gang; mysterious, sexy, and yet highly literate. Hayden Thorpe's vocals rattled while Tom Fleming's soared, Ben Little's guitar and synth playing seemed to hold everything together, while Chris Talbot's drumming remains one of the most subtle yet stunning things out there. They had a force and unpredictability about them I had rarely witnessed before, and this is speaking as someone who spent most of his adolescence at underground punk shows.
The festival, in general, had many highlights, but Wild Beasts knocked me for six. I immediately went home and found the album they had been touring and was enamoured. Seven years on, Two Dancers has only gotten better with age. While their debut Limbo, Panto was positively bursting at the seams with ideas and an erratic energy, which as a result remains Wild Beast purists' favourite record, there was a control and maturity the band mastered on Two Dancers many others would take far longer to manage.
Wild Beasts formed in the Lake District town of Kendal, Cumbria - a place Romanticists such as William Wordsworth would envisage in similarly lyrical poetry two centuries prior - before moving to Leeds in 2006 and becoming a crucial part of the indie-art-rock scene there. They developed a sound unfamiliar to indie-rock observers at the time, who were still in the midst of what's now regularly referred to as "landfill indie". In many ways, Thorpe (vocals, guitars), Fleming (vocals, bass), Little (guitar, synths), and Talbot (drums), along with bands such as Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit, signified a shift towards the upcoming decade where UK indie-rock would become a far more exciting and intriguing scene.
Just take Two Dancers singles, which sit back-to-back on the album. Between Thorpe's 'Hooting & Howling' and Fleming's 'All The Kings Men', Wild Beasts announced everything you needed to know about them. One is soulful and sultry, the other playful and bouncy, but both perfectly display the band's two sides. Throughout Two Dancers, they craft songs that are at once instantly distinguishable but also surprising and densely layered, something they would never quite master again.
That isn't to say their subsequent albums weren't up to much. On the contrary, there aren't many acts who can be so proud of a five-album discography, but the overall narrative with every passing album was that of a band distilling and diluting their sound until it became almost indistinguishable. This wasn't an issue on Smother the band's third and somewhat "breakout" record; while they pared back some of the playfulness of their first two records, they instead focused on creating a lusciously produced and written record. On songs such as 'Bed Of Nails', 'Albatross' and 'Reach A Bit Further' they added to their canon of gorgeous, soul-seeking tracks on an album full of them.
Then, along came 'Wanderlust'. The lead single from the band's fourth record will probably go down as their greatest. It is everything one had come to expect from the band, with a new, added caveat of a deep electronic synth line, one of Thorpe's greatest, controlled vocal performances, and a monotonous, kraut-rock drum-beat which despite sounding easy, is in fact incredibly difficult to perform live. It is perhaps no coincidence that the single drove its parent record into the UK Top Ten Album charts, a first for a band once considered one of the country's weirdest entities. What a shame then, that Present Tense couldn't maintain the momentum of its opener. By many bands standards, Present Tense is still an excellent record, and tracks like 'Mecca', 'Sweet Spot', and 'Palace' prove this, but for some, it proved just a further watered-down version of what went on before. In short, it felt like the first time the band had re-tread ground.
So while their seemingly final album, Boy King, may have come as a surprise with its sleek production and more conventional pop structures, something needed to change to keep the band fresh. It scans as an oddity, for now, the album that maybe killed Wild Beasts off given they openly admitted in interviews that they had "become the band we objected to being” and seemed to reflect their full-time move from Leeds to East London.
However, it was also the band's best-performing album on the charts and, even for a far more conventionally sounding record for them, it remains a far intriguing proposition than anything their notable copycats, Alt-J, have come up with. Their 2010 Mercury nomination for their masterpiece, Two Dancers was a sign of critical approval, even if at the time they still seemed like outsiders to win it. To not receive a nomination for Smother however, the year before a younger, inferior version of themselves took the main prize is a travesty. Wild Beasts stayed respectful, but one wouldn't be surprised if it stung a little to see an album so clearly influenced by them manage to blow up award wins, critical reception, and chart positions so soon after.
Maybe Wild Beasts were never meant for such meaningless trophies on this plane. They will be remembered as one of the UK's most original and fascinating entities who, for a short while, threatened to take over the world. Their inventiveness will be sorely missed, but perhaps it;s for the best that they quit while they are ahead. Over the course of a decade, they remained a fiercely creative spirit who ushered in a more exciting time for British music. So while it is sad to see them go, we can forever be thankful for that.