Part of the inherent joy and frustration of being a music writer lies in attempting to describe sound to a reader while simultaneously diving deep into the musical memory bank to find appropriate reference points. You like (x band)? Here’s (y band), who sound a lot like (x band)! You’ve all read it, I’ve written it, and here we are again, locked in yet another battle to find the right description and comparison. Except this time I have a subject that, in many ways, defies both of these concepts on a regular basis. It makes for a particularly strange writing session, which in many ways mirrors the strangeness of the listening experience. It’s kinda fun, but mostly weird, and Wreck and Reference are kind of making my life miserable right now. In the best way possible, naturally.
For those unfamiliar, Los Angeles duo Wreck and Reference are unlike any band making music today. Describing their sound is a lot like trying to explain water to someone. Yes, it’s wet and you should probably drink a lot of it, but that only covers a fraction of what the substance actually is. Mixing doom metal, electronic elements, ambient, spoken-word, and experimental/avant-garde extreme music into a delicious stew of sonic terrors/delights, Wreck and Reference have never come close to making the same album twice, tweaking their formula (whatever that is) with each subsequent release. Whether you love or hate their spoken-word/screamed-into-oblivion musings, it’s difficult to deny that the niche the band have carved for themselves is utterly singular. Their fourth album, Absolute Still Life, is another marked departure from their previous work. Which, in a way, is business as usual. Once again in the best way possible.
Let’s start with “A Mirror”, which immediately presents itself as a composition unlike anything the band have written before. Gone is the more organic percussive backbone that’s long been a staple of the band’s music, replaced instead with skittering, jittery programmed beats that create a distinctly inhuman vibe. Felix Skinner’s intimidating roars are absent as well, allowing Ignat Frege’s spoken-word poetry (and damn does it sound good here) to run wild throughout. Flowing through frame after frame of liquid beats and forlorn melodies, it’s a stunning opening that sets the stage for the tone of the record.
“Sturdy Dawn”, with its repetitious vocal lines and deeply industrial tone, feels like a less abrasive and far more experimental/wack-a-doodle Godflesh. Skinner’s desperately screamed vocals only add to the intensity, layering atop Frege’s monotone delivery to create a fantastically cathartic finale to the track. The sonic palette of the following “Eris Came to Me at Night” feels in contrast like a languid, midnight version of Mamaleek, moving deliberately and with a great sense of groove over such uplifting musings as “you’re getting boring, you’re getting old”. It’s another showstopper, and we’re only three tracks in.
It should be fairly obvious by this point that Absolute Still Life is nothing if not diverse, and this trend continues unabated throughout the record. The stately dirge of “What Goes In and Comes Out” intensifies into something bordering on triumphant, only to have “What Is a Gift” launch a sonic siege on our unsuspecting eardrums, showcasing Skinner’s rampant roars over a dense foundation of beats that keep the track constantly lurching forward in an incessant march toward total oblivion. “In Uniform” in turn unfurls an oddly melodic and spacey creep-fest before the record dives headlong once more into highly experimental territory with “Dumb Forest”. While entrenched firmly in the sonic universe that is Absolute Still Life, each track on this record is like its own planet, sinking slowly into a black hole of experimentation that’s constantly pulling these compositions into an inescapable darkness. It’s weird. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard this year. It’s utterly delightful.
If you’ve heard Wreck and Reference’s previous material, know that they provide no real reference point or preparation for what Absolute Still Life offers. It’s a departure from the rest of the band’s discography, much like each of their records has been different from its preceding release. But it’s much more than simply another stylistic U-turn for a band known for them. Instead, Absolute Still Life is a transfixing, indescribable collage of sounds that only a band like this could create, and ends up being one of the most diverse and thoroughly engaging records I’ve heard this year. It’s also the most consistently amazing album of the band’s career thus far. Whether or not you’ve embarked on a deep dive into Wreck and Reference’s world, let go of all expectation and allow this record to take you where it will. It’ll be well worth your while. Essential listening.
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Absolute Still Life is out now via The Flenser, and is available for purchase on the band’s Bandcamp page.