Wolf Blood, II: Beyond Cultistry

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It’s a markedly outside-genre approach that Wolf Blood seem to be taking on their second album, II, and the only question one is left with when they’re done is who’s going to sign them. Because especially if they tour at all, it’s going to need to be someone, as their work is simply too engaging in its individualism to leave hanging out there on Bandcamp with the limited self-pressings it’s gotten. At times reminiscent of Kylesa, as in the dual vocals between guitarist Mindy Johnson¬†and bassist Adam Rucinski — drummer Jake Paulsrud also contributes — during “Kumate,” their winding moments are able to conjure modern prog or even out to the straight-ahead drive of black metal as they will, with Johnson and fellow guitarist Mike Messina leading arrangements like that of the penultimate “Drowning Man,” which doesn’t offer much beyond the assumed guitar, bass, drums and vocals and yet manifests a resonant sense of atmosphere thanks to the patience of the delivery and the richness of the tones involved, the echoes seeming to rise from the guitar and bass lines like so much distant smoke.

With a pervasive sense of melody to coincide, Wolf Blood emerge five years after their self-titled debut (review here) with a six-song/41-minute LP that refuses to do anything other than stand on its own. The Duluth, Minnesota-based four-piece have clearly worked to discover who they are as players in the intervening half-decade from one release to the next — they also brought in Rucinski as a new member — but the manner in which they succeed across II‘s varied-of-intent-but-united-in-mood span is thrilling and immersive at the same time, even unto the post-Sleep march of 11-minute closer “Tsunami,” the louder parts of which live up to the name in tidal undulations of riffing ahead of quieter verses, creating a push-pull tension that, as one would hope, pays off in a fervent thrust to cap the album as a whole. That is just one more example of the ways in which Wolf Blood‘s II feels strikingly complete, as that last push carries some reminder of the outset of “Lesion” back at the start of the record.

Indeed, those opening seconds that introduce the opener and return as a bridge between verses at the beginning of II are a crucial nod to extreme metal that add an element of danger to everything Wolf Blood do subsequent to them, an undercurrent of volatility belying even the calmest of stretches. With Paulsrud blasting away on drums, “Lesion” revels in that elemental extremity, and that only makes the swinging groove of “Slaughterhouse” all the more satisfying as the vocal harmonies arrive in thoughtfully composed fashion over a push that’s more subtle than that of the opener but finds Rucinski — or Paulsrud — stepping forward in order to take a soaring chorus in an effective changeup of their approach to that point. A guitar solo leads to full-on instrumental charge as “Slaughterhouse” pushes into the aforementioned “Kumate” (a misspelled Bloodsport reference, perhaps?), the finisher for side A and the longest and most outwardly dynamic song yet, though frankly, neither of the preceding tracks wanted anything for dynamic.

WOLF BLOOD

The fluidity with which Wolf Blood are able to shift from churn to charge isn’t to be understated, and it’s almost before the listener realizes what has happened that a given song has taken off in one direction or the other. Like the blastbeats in “Lesion” the effect this has is to make the album overall less predictable and more exciting, and as the four-piece leave a trail of memorable parts behind, whether that’s the chorus in “Kumate” or the more rocking two-minute “Opium” that follows at the start of side B, topped with growls amid a cacophonous assault that would be post-metal were it not essentially a transmogrified desert rock riff put to inventive use. It’s not that Wolf Blood are doing anything at a given moment that’s willfully weird or over the top in terms of making a show of their “unique” aspects — there’s no check-us-out-we’re-weird-and-hyper-performative happening here — but the way they combine stylistic pieces to create the ambience of “Drowning Man” or “Slaughterhouse,” or even “Lesion” and “Opium,” is unquestionably their own.

And the thoughtfulness of their composition extends to the arrangement of the album itself, with each side running from its shortest track to its longest, though admittedly this is more noticeable on side B, where the difference is more stark. That Wolf Blood should so thrive in the longer “Drowning Man” and “Tsunami” isn’t necessarily a surprise, but the manner in which Wolf Blood execute the end of II reinforces the engagement that’s been happening all along and affirms their clearheadedness about who they are and what they want to be doing, be that the interplay of screams and clean vocals in “Drowning Man” or the already-noted rousing all-go at the end of “Tsunami.” With these moments and a full record’s worth of others, Wolf Blood seem to be skirting the line of sonic progressivism, not really willing to be so indulgent as to fully dive in, but neither content to simplify their impulses.

It’s hard to tell in II if this is a balance finding its way or the output of competing ideologies of craft, one of which will win out over the other in the longer term. And what does the longer term mean when a band takes five years between their first and second LPs, anyway? I said at the outset that some label or other needs to get behind II for wider release, and I genuinely believe it, but I don’t think Wolf Blood are finished growing, either. This, ultimately, makes them all the more vital as they continue to develop their approach, but the big question that needs to be answered is where they’ll take that from here and what their intentions are for all the potential shown in these tracks, because as much as they represent a realization of the band’s collective aesthetic ideals, they seem to speak to a forward-thinking mentality that will require its own manifestation. They have work to do, but that shouldn’t take away from the important steps made throughout II, which no matter what Wolf Blood come up with next will continue to stand as the moment they first hinted how much they truly had to offer.

Wolf Blood, II (2019)

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