Photo Credit- Ryan Johnston
WHILE many critics would have us believe that British guitar music is in the midst of a steady decline, North London quartet Wolf Alice returned earlier this year with an album that indicated that there’s absolutely nothing to worry about; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Having established their reputation as one of UK indie’s biggest breakthrough acts of recent years when they released their critically acclaimed debut album My Love Is Cool in 2015, the four-piece surpassed all expectations with the arrival of their phenomenal second album Visions of a Life in September. Elevating them to new dizzying, genre-defying heights, it took the experimentation, curiosity and eclectic palette of the first record and pushed them even further; a shift that marked their growth from ‘best new band’ to quite simply ‘best band’, full stop.
Now boasting a massive army of followers all over the world, the quartet return to Glasgow for a highly anticipated double header at the globally renowned Barrowland Ballroom, a venue they admit is one of their favourite to play. They bring with them a stellar supporting cast in Superfood and Sunflower Bean. The former provide an upbeat, funky start to proceedings with a set that leans heavily on their new album Bambino; a record which signalled an exciting shift in direction for the outfit. Balancing old school guitar parts with innovative twists, they fly through giddily infectious, funk-laden numbers such as ‘Where’s The Bass Amp?’, ‘I Can’t See’ and ‘Double Dutch’ to a warm reception from the increasingly excitable crowd.
Up next are Sunflower Bean who give us an insight into some brand new material alongside an array of hits from their critically acclaimed debut album Human Ceremony. Much like Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell, Julia Cumming has an ability to switch from ferocious and angry to soft and mellow at the drop of a hat; the perfect foil to Nick Kivlen’s crunching guitar work. Prone to spacey psych jams, it’s a performance that’s as mesmerising as it is punchy and raw and we can’t wait for their return to Glasgow in April.
By the time the lights dim for the headline act, a tangible buzz sweeps across the Barras. Soaring in with the dense, shoegazy ‘Heavenward’, the heroes of the hour kick things to life with the ferocious ‘Yuk Foo’ – Ellie Rowsell screams ‘I don’t give a shit!’ over three minutes of expletive-laden, punk-fuelled carnage as mosh pits begin to open in fervour.
If Wolf Alice have evolved over the past couple of years, then Ellie Rowsell comes across as an entirely different creature altogether. Now an absolutely formidable, bordering on iconic frontwoman, her ever-evolving stage persona sees her shift from utterly furious on the likes of ‘You’re a Germ’ and ‘Formidable Cool’ to beautifully soft and ethereal on ‘St Purple & Green’ and ‘Planet Hunter’. She may draw you in at her most introspective, but there’s an underlying menace that unleashes itself throughout the night in truly explosive fashion.
Her finest moment however is undoubtedly ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’, one of the band’s most strikingly honest and powerfully emotive creations to date. Shedding her guitar, she takes centre stage under the sparkling light of a disco ball and delivers a starry-eyed, beautifully poetic lyric over an electronic shimmer of synths. Navigating her way through the feeling of falling in love, she bears a completely captivating presence as the crowd sing every word back perfectly.
The well-balanced setlist effectively draws attention to the band’s well-documented strength in contrasting dynamics; from the brooding menace of ‘Formidable Cool’, to the tight, groovy pop of ‘Beautifully Unconventional’ to the upbeat and joyful ‘Bros’, they display an enviable command of their craft with each sharply delivered track. The elongated title track ‘Visions’ of a Life’ is particularly impressive with its ambitious three-part structure, delving into surging space-rock and swirling layers of atmosphere as they depict a personal journey through different moods and textures. Effortlessly cool throughout, Joel Amey and Theo Ellis provide rhythmic thunder when they need to while resident guitar shredder Joff Oddie flies in all sorts of directions throughout the night; soaked in reverb one minute, he provides nice, finger-picked melodies the next, all while egging the crowd on with a series of ear-piercing squalls and hurls in the air.
‘Space and Time’ provides a thrilling burst of energy while special mention must go to a girl called Freya who joins the band onstage to perform old favourite ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’ after responding to Rowsell’s plea on Twitter the day before the show. She dutifully delivers the singer’s guitar part perfectly; much to the appreciation of the rapturous audience.
A deeply moving take on ‘Blush’ and a frenzied ‘Giant Peach’ sees the gig out in thrilling fashion. And as the sweat-soaked crowd filter out of the venue, you can’t help but think you’ve witnessed something very special indeed. A band who draw in a very diverse crowd, from young excitable teenagers to devoted older fans who appreciate their undeniable originality and musicality, it comes as no surprise that they’ve risen to the forefront of the UK music scene with few naysayers in their way. Two years ago, chat may have revolved around potential album sales and chart positions; but now, the four-piece could be on the cusp of something far bigger. If people are talking about guitar music again, then it’s because Wolf Alice are one of the artists leading the way. No longer one of the nation’s hottest prospects, they’re superstars in waiting.