‘Could Neo-Grunge Ever Be Decent?’ has hardly been a question on the tip of people’s tongues. Yet it’s not like grunge is out of Wavves’ reach – it’s simple, often catchy, and descends from the lo-fi-noise-rock-garage-rock scenes that Wavves take from. Possibly the most natural progression from Wavves’ mock-adolescent chants of “I’m so bored” is to move in to genuine angst and self-loathing. Afraid of Heights takes elements of grunge’s palette – thick choruses, simple riffs, gentle acoustics, and that sense of loss and helplessness. The result merges them rather effortlessly with their former lo-fi surf punk.
It’s a change in tone that serves them very well, for the most part. Before, Wavves would filter all of their melodies through what sounded like a rusty tin-can radio clogged with grit and wet sand. In Afraid of Heights, they turn this dial on and off, using noisy lo-fi effects more discreetly, and opening up a whole new range of texture in their music as a result.
What remains is a gorgeous mixture of grunge and punk with more details, off-the-wall flicks and kicks and additions. Noise, loops, reverb and extra instruments are used to colour their music. The filter-heavy handclaps and whirring noise that define ‘Mystic’ become more atypical, for instance; the lo-fi loops and reverb effects are now relegated to introductions, spice and seasonings on top of their tracks. It’s ironically almost the antithesis of grunge music, in that whilst they’ve barely stripped it down, the power of the music still remains.
If anything, Wavves actually prove the tenets of grunge – simplicity is power – are perhaps a little more flexible. Their ability to play catchy, forward-driven punk tunes (even if disguised under walls of effects) has not been affected by this shift; guitar-led works such as ‘Lunge Forward’ and ‘Paranoid’ still shine through in contrast to the bass-heavy grunginess elsewhere. Nor does the aforementioned, deliciously messy bassy-ness of ‘Demon To Lean On’ and ‘Afraid of Heights’ lose its shine with the additions of an extra distorted lick here or some airy backing vocals there.
The number of song titles quoted here should hint at the rather impressive range of sound and experimentation on Afraid of Heights, though it perhaps sleepwalks into the dangerous territory of seeming ‘disconnected’. Mostly, it dodges that quite easily, but its broadness in general can sometimes be its own weakness. Some of the more experimental, bizarre songs (‘Everything is My Fault’), whilst beautiful in their own right seem to feel displaced in an album which is rooted primarily in catchy, straight-forward music.
For the most part, Wavves’ latest effort has been successful break from their norm, an adventurous attempt that pays off for its frank honesty; its confessions “I’ll always be on my own”, or “I don’t want to remember” are painful to hear. It also pays off for its musical exploration, and through picking apart old sounds and fusing new ones together, it makes some startlingly new and unique music. When it comes down to etymology, that’s all what ‘neo’ means – new.By Beth Curtis