by BEN BROCK WILKES
Creeping out from the quiet warbles and crinkles of the needle drop that begin Wampire’s debut, an archetypal pipe organ leaks notes of familiar darkness. A shadowed, Draculesque figure hunches in front of the haunted keys as metallic, baroque horror echoes off the walls. Buckling to an irresistible curiosity, we approach the figure, a pool of sweat collecting on our brow in the cool humidity of his dungeon hall. We reach the bench where the embodiment of our fears sits, just as he whisks around to greet us with a smooth bass lick, an assortment of ghoulish fellows, and a contemporary “Monster Mash” in Curiosity’s opener, “The Hearse.”
It’s hard to not have images of ballroom blitzes or Scooby-Doo chase scenes dance through your mind while listening to Wampire’s first release, Curiosity. The Portland, Oregon duo of Rocky Tinder and Eric Phipps—trio, if you include Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s bassist and the album’s producer Jacob Portrait—have crafted a record with a precise and distinct tone that is this silly, frantic nightmare. It is sinister at the same time that it is playful, fun and danceable at the same time that it is deeply confessional and at moments, depraved—as “Orchards” admits, “inside the old folks home, I can’t stop my laughter.” An absolute expertise in tonality is what was necessary to hollow out such a niche, and is what makes the LP so singular.
Clocking in at just over half an hour, Curiosity is fast-paced and concise, moving through its nine tracks without dwelling on any one hook long enough for the listener to recognize it as such—the one exception being “Outta Money’s” take on the Arcade Fire 2-chord epic. The opening track and the group’s exposé of style, “The Hearse” tromps through its gothy, new wave pop-rock with a guilty smirk, “nobody knows what I have done…if you were in my shoes, you’d do it too.” A pleasant surprise arrives with the ambient break halfway through the song—a faux pas for the first track on a pop LP maybe—but also a candid plug: hey, we have guts, from Portland’s latest in psychedelic.
Each song is stuffed with sound — there is, simply put, a lot going on and a lot to pay attention to in a short amount of time — despite catchy hooks and appropriated pop forms (i.e. the chord progression on “Trains,” that even Rolling Stone couldn’t keep its hands off of). What’s impressive is that every layer of noise is so articulate and finely honed that wherever your ear chooses to roam is a worthwhile endeavor. The lonesome, desert whistle on “Orchards” seems to better encapsulate the Western movie genre than John Wayne does. The tin flute effect that responds to the call of the offbeat guitar strums during the verses of “Spirit Forest” is as out-of-this-world as it is oddly organic. And the synth tones during the second half of “I Can’t See Why” conjure an image of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” on the moon. Even the smallest nuance like the güiro scrape that enters the percussion on “Trains” at 1:20 has been altered to sound like a croaking frog to match the mood of cinematic horror. The most remarkable moment of this recording fluidity is the subtle implosion on “Giants” at the 2:30 mark. Rarely is a half-time break pulled off so well, not to mention a 180-degree reversal in feel, from a driving, tension-filled beat to a spacious jazz groove.
Flawless transitions are endemic to the record, and necessary in order to cram this many ideas into an attention-deficit 32 minutes. It is as if Curiosity has taken a postmortem body, with krautrock blood and a heart of rhythm and blues, and resurrected it by stapling and gluing on pieces of our postmodern musical Diaspora. Wampire’s Frankenstein Rock has defibrillated Dick Dale surf rock on “Giants” and the “Hotel California” voiced chords on “Orchards” with the production savvy of post-dubstep (for example, the downtempo intro of “Magic Light”) and the tonality and spirit of Oregon psychedelic dance bedfellows Unknown Mortal Orchestra and STRFKR (the second half of “Magic Light”).
Whether by coincidence or some pulling of strings that surely resulted in a large amount of ribbing among the higher-ups, Vampire Weekend’s new record also came out this week. Though Wampire certainly has a lot left to prove, Curiosity busts down doors in the messy free-for-all that is indie rock on a similarly self-aware and intellectual plane to the way VW’s self-titled did five years ago. With a name like Wampire, an adaptation of Phipps’ nickname coined by goth friends in Germany, these guys obviously don’t take themselves too seriously — see their new video for “Orchards” for more; it features a character that resembles a splicing of the two main Scarers in Monsters, Inc. This light-hearted nature is ironic and refreshing when paired with dark music and rather serious nocturnal confession, “I give to you, you give to me, but I never seem to get what I need,” or “you could be the nighttime sky and see me lose my mind.” It is these oppositions of goofy, yet quite unsettling; sunny tunes, but lit by an amber moon; Kraftwerk cover B-sides released next to music with Motown flair, that makes the fact that “we can’t figure out which way to turn” work. Making and experiencing music is all about exploration and curiosity because “life is but a playground with kids running around.” Wampire makes that feeling accessible through a new avenue on Curiosity. [B+]