There have been few new albums out this year that I have been eagerly awaiting more than the latest Wooden Shjips album, Back to Land. The problem with this is that this can mean that I will almost certainly be disappointed with the outcome, so high are my expectations. When I was thinking about this my mind led me back to another occasion when I has such high hopes for a new release, Technique by New Order. I remember that I was so keen to get my hands on it that I drove 40 miles from my then home in rural Wales to get myself a copy. History now tells us that on that occasion the album marked a significant step forward of that band; and for me this is also the case with Back to Land.
Wooden Shjips have been at the forefront of the psychedelic revival over the last few years, a revival that still seems to be developing in breadth and intensity (although I do have a latent fear that far too many people are beginning to jump on the psych bandwagon) and shows no sign of blowing out anytime soon, and with albums like Back to Land I have hope that there is still a lot of life in this movement – if that is what you can call it.
This is Wooden Shjips fourth album (there have also been two compilations of singles and rarities) and listening to them in order shows a band that have developed significantly with every outing. And yet a cursory listen to them might suggest that they have hardly developed at all, since their music has retained its monotonous and repetitive drone, especially in the way that the bass, drums and organ thrum out such as consistent beat.
When their previous album, West, came out in 2011 I really wondered where they could go because they seemed to be reaching the limits of the Wooden Shjips template. If anything, however, Back to Land is an even bigger step on again. There is no question that this is psychedelic rock, and there is certainly no question that this is every bit as full on and intense as anything else that the Wooden Shjips have produced. Yet it does feel as if it is an album that will enable them to broaden their following.
Yes the repetition is still there. Yes the drone is still there. And yes the trademark signature sound is still there. But there are more layers here, and there is every bit as much intensity and introspection as ever. But the use of guitar and, to a certain extent, organ on this album is the difference for me. Much of this is down to the way guitarist Ripley Johnson plays and sings, but also the way it is mixed with the guitar and vocal soaring above the drone. These elements mark the escape from the ‘normal’, that transportation somewhere else that surely should be at the very core of psychedelic music.
This, then, is still very much a Wooden Shjips, but it is much more varied than with previous albums of theirs. A couple of tracks, the opener Back to Land and These Shadows, really reminded me of more recent Psychic Ills albums, with a similar lugubrious guitar. They are, for me, really beautiful songs that, despite that relentless driving back-beat, help me to slow down and reflect.
Elsewhere the second track, Ruins, is a real rock and roll number with an almost rockabilly beginning, a great organ bridge and lovely guitar to fade at the end. This is followed by Ghouls which has an explosive punk drum and guitar intro before that trademark organ kicks in. The guitar on this track is more rawkish.
Only the beginning Servants sounds like it could have been on a previous Wooden Shjips album, and the shock of hearing this intro reminded me of how much of a development this collection of songs represents. As it is Servants then goes off in a different direction and, if anything, it the one where the driving beat is most in danger of being interrupted, albeit briefly.
The final track, Everybody Knows, is perhaps the most different. Beginning with a huge wall of fuzzy guitar, the organ slips in, followed by lamenting vocals. It sounds sad, but it is actually a strong and ultimately uplifting end to a really impressive album.
This, then, is not flamboyant music. It feels serious. But it also helps you to escape. Escape the monotony that it reflects. This is very evident in Wooden Shjips live shows where they build up a fantastic head of steam that enables you to transport yourself somewhere else, even without additional ‘stimulation’. In this sense Back to Land is a very welcome addition to their oeuvre, it is evolution rather than revolution – but with such a strong back catalogue already why go back to the drawing board. I look forward to hearing it live in December.