ALBUM REVIEW: WIFE “What’s Between”


Shortly after Irish black metal outfit Altar of Plagues announced their breakup last summer, the group’s frontman James Kelly unveiled the first glimmers of a forthcoming album to come from his electronic side project WIFE. I–along with pretty much all the metal fans I know–wasn’t ready to be consoled. Altar of Plagues’ disbanding came on the heels of their third and best studio release Teethed Glory and Injury, an album that I loved for its ability to deconstruct and rework the music’s sludgy layers, its clipped, nightmarish, often waltz-time beats, and the near-visual landscape created by  the album’s texture and subtle details. WIFEon the other hand, was a kind of  spacey electro-pop endeavor–no more metal. Was Kelly just being a contrarian? Was he trying to show off his eclectic musical range? Was he simply quitting while he was ahead?

Maybe, but a listen to WIFE’s new album What’s Between, which came out June 9th on Tri Angle, goes a long way toward elucidating the jump between Kelly’s work with Plagues and where he is now. From the first track, “Like Chrome,” What’s Between demonstrates a lot of restraint. It’s an establishing shot that takes its time in developing, expunging any other thoughts and sounds that may be rolling around a listener’s head, effectively clearing a space for the music to come.

That music is strange–slightly dystopian, slightly doom-y–and though I would not call the collection optimistic, Kelly finds a way to develop a sense of wonder, awe, and curiosity as a result of the spaciousness he creates. Even the scary songs, like “Tongue,” get their spookiness from suspense. If an Altar of Plagues album were a horror film, What’s Between would be a psychological thriller. “Tongue” uses every sound at its disposal, shaking and rattling twitchily, like a monster waking up from hibernation and flexing all ten of its talons. That said, the music’s aggression remains implicit, and at no point dominates the album.

The nine songs on this album run about average length, varying from two and a half up to just over seven minutes, but often feel as if they’re on the long side. Many of the tracks, especially “Tongue” and “Heart Is A Far Light,” contain several moods. A poppy and playful couple of minutes give way to larger dreamscapes or house-like heartbeat rhythms. It’s not as if Kelly was ever a conventional black metal musician, but those looking for something to put up the horns to will find it, sort of at least, in “Salvage,” whose distinct and aggressive beat hearkens back to the pounding three-four rhythms of Teethed Glory songs like “God Alone.”

Now that I’ve listened to the album, this observation sounds like it should have been obvious from the beginning, but Kelly’s fixations and devices aren’t all that different as an electronic musician than they were when he was making metal. The album–like the first two Plagues albums, White Tomb and Mammal–runs a little introverted, more interested in developing its themes than in engaging the listener. To be fair, it took three albums to make Teethed Glory. It seems like Kelly could have chosen any aesthetic–metal, electronic, pop, or any other–and go about making music in a similar way: he builds a minimal foundation and expands to fill the space between the walls he’s erected. In the case of Altar of Plagues, Kelly followed the black metal thread until he was satisfied he’d reached the end of the line, and then he moved on. If What’s Between isn’t a perfectly realized electronic pop album, that probably means that WIFE’s not done yet.

Listen to the eerie “Tongue,” off What’s Between, below via SoundCloud. What’s Between is out now on LP, CD and digital release via Tri Angle. Get it here!


Burzum.jphScandinavian black metal began as direct descendant of English heavy metal acts like Venom and Bathory, the morbid younger sister of death metal and the spacey, supernatural cousin of hardcore punk. It’s a young subgenre—Mayhem’s 1987 Deathcrush EP sparked the scene in Norway in the late eighties and early nineties, and by the end of that decade, black metal had largely self-destructed. The movement adopted heavy metal lyrical styles towards darker, more occult themes, emphasizing a theatrical live show style in which musicians would perform wearing corpse paint—a more realistic take on Kiss-style stage makeup—and sometimes cut themselves on stage, carrying animal heads on sticks or flinging meat and blood into the audience. Many bands identified as Satanist, either symbolically or in practice, for shock value or in response to the mildly Lutheran Scandinavian norm. This led to a series of church burnings throughout the nineties, many of them nominally in protest of Christian churches built on top of ancient Pagan burial grounds. What began as a game of one-upmanship amongst the heavy hitters of the scene spiraled symbolic Satanism into real acts, and several of the genre’s most talented musicians’ careers were cut short by suicide, murder, prison, or alienation from the ever-increasingly extreme ideology of the movement.

No black metal bands were more prolific than Burzum, a band that put out two albums a year in 1991, 1992, and 1993, and then incrementally slowed its releases(to one every other year or so) after sole member Varg Vikernes was convicted of murdering Mayhem’s frontman, Øystein Aarseth, and incarcerated. Burzum’s Aske album, a three-track mini-LP that clocks in at a scant twenty minutes and came out in 1993, was the last Burzum release before Vikernes’ arrest. Though Aske, in typical nineties metal style, uses thick distortion and rough-edged recording techniques, it also incorporates aggressive bass lines and eighties-influenced power chords that suppress the kind of crackling, rhythmless chaos common in black metal. This actually makes the album accessible, even catchy, compared with contemporaneous releases and Burzum’s later work, which turned ambient and fully electronic while he was in jail and, not having access to an electric guitar, switched to recording on a synthesizer.

Despite strong riffs and an instrumental balance that, although too polished for purists, lent complexity and depth to the record, Aske was underwhelming. This was partially due to its length—the three songs felt like build-up; were it a standard-length album, things would have had plenty of time to get interesting—and partially due to the fact that Burzum valued shock value over musical integrity on this LP. Early in his career, Vikernes expressed his world views in a general sort of way (“Only Transylvanian pussy will do!” reads a Burzum interview conducted by an unknown metal zine, sometime in 1993. “Hail Saddam Hussein! Hail Hitler! Make war, not love!”) However, when the epidemic of church burnings in Norway, beginning around 1992, came to be attributed to Satanist black metal musicians, Varg Vikernes seemed to begin to consider himself more activist than musician. Around the time the Aske album was released, Vikernes was busy giving newspapers anonymous interviews and fending off an arrest for his alleged burning of the Fantoft Stave Church, a prominent, nearly-nine-hundred-year-old cathedral in Bergen, Norway. Vikernes was ultimately found not guilty of that crime, though he was convicted in two other church burning cases, and the album cover for Aske pictured the Fantoft Stave church in flames. Burzum extolled the church burnings in songs and distributed Aske merch, with the same image that appears on the album cover, like t shirts, poster and—you guessed it—lighters.


It’s possible to talk about Burzum’s first two albums without getting into their attending politics. In later releases, Burzum proved more true to political themes than to genre, and has recently released only totally electronic albums. Vikernes divorced himself from black metal long ago, though he helped create it. “Yet again I have left behind the metal genre and have chosen a different path—but for no other reason than me following my Pagan spirit willingly to wherever it takes me,” Vikernes wrote this year in his blog, which I don’t recommend reading unless you want to be deeply offended from about six different angles. Aske follows the musical trajectory laid out by Burzum’s releases, but the shift is clear: this LP is the first of many, many albums the band put out in which the music falls secondary to the message.