CD reviews

Shriek, by Wye Oak; That’s Harakiri, by Sd Laika

By NATE CHINEN & BEN RATLIFF  /  NY Times News Service

Thu, May 01, 2014 - Page 11

Reinvention has long been a dog-eared page in the rock band playbook, and “trade guitars for synthesizers” might be the most underlined statement on the page. For every band that manages that transition with grace and purpose, there are many more that seem driven by desperation, having exhausted the usual options. Shriek, the immersive new album by Wye Oak, somehow places the group in both categories.

Made up of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack, and formerly rooted in Baltimore, Wye Oak built all of its previous momentum as an indie-rock band, finding a place for drifting languor, whorled distortion and just a hint of twang. Wasner sang and played guitar with skilled conviction, and Stack brought the same focused energy to his drumming.

But after touring behind its 2011 album, Civilian (Merge), the duo was physically and creatively spent. Stack moved to Portland, Oregon, and then Marfa, Texas; Wasner, back in Baltimore, found she couldn’t spark any new material on guitar.

The sound of Shriek, all shimmer and hum, is a product of this back story, which also provides the album with a lyrical subtext.

“This morning I woke up on the floor,” Wasner sings in Before, the opening track, “Thinking I have never dreamed before.” Wherever else her oblique poetics take her, she holds fast to this feeling of interiority, often returning to dream language. Her singing is strong and centered: an alluring but dispassionate alto that often serves as the album’s only organic timbre.

Still, Shriek is more of a continuation than a disruption: It’s a product of the catalytic bond between Stack, on synthesizers and drum programming, and Wasner, on electric bass. (The bass lines, especially on a track like The Tower, point toward some of the riffs she previously would have played on guitar, just as the synth interlude on Glory stands in for a feedback-distressed solo.)

When everything clicks, as in the ghostly bounce of Schools of Eyes, the band’s new direction seems inevitable. Despicable Animal exploits the framework, too, swerving from a calmly suffocating verse and bridge into a startling sunburst of a chorus. “If I can bring us to water,” Wasner sings then, “will you promise to drink deep?”

There are also moments that suggest a voguish nod to retro synth-pop: Logic of Color, the album’s closer, could almost be a track by Haim, played underwater. Wasner seems almost to admit as much: “I’m playing a part/Again” are her first words, as if she were owning up to the pastiche. Whether or not this world of sound represents the future for Wye Oak, whose current tour reaches Webster Hall on May 7, it was a departure well worth taking.

— NATE CHINEN, NY Times News Service

Sd Laika is the pseudonym of Peter Runge, a young man from Milwaukee who makes, more or less, wordless electronic poems, highly perverse and alive.

His work sounds influenced by the English dance music called grime — clipped and abrupt beats, Antillean rhythms, a puzzle of disjointed parts — but isn’t ever fully beholden to it, and doesn’t use rappers. He hasn’t released much material yet. In 2012 he made an EP, Unknown Vectors; his first full album, That’s Harakiri, over 11 tracks in 32 minutes, makes a sort of progression. From beginning to end, it moves from tense sound collages toward polyrhythmic music that can be danced to — but the progression isn’t explicit, and neither is anything else.

What a beginning. Runge works with sharp and focused electronic beats, but also with the dirtiest kind of sounds, both analog and digital: room sound or tape hiss or bicycle bells, synthesizer tones that have been corrupted so as to sound like erasures, or echoes, or some kind of aural stain left behind by a sound that went on to do something more important.

The first few tracks here — Peace, Great God Pan and Gutter Vibrations — use bits of melody that repeat aimlessly and rhythmic structures that keep the tracks from falling apart, but other than that, there’s no recapitulation or development: These things go from A to B, but never back to A again. Sd Laika is too busy pushing toward new and uncomfortable sensations, and he makes an impressively weird habit of bringing the volume up and down, seemingly at random, never patterned.

And what an end. Don’t Know builds up to twisted cross-rhythms, a spray of echo and then a full stop in 30 seconds; it starts again, with thumping, strobing beats and a little micro-melody; at a minute and 40 seconds, there’s another rupture, another brief silence, and another profound change. (He temporarily mutes or hides whatever feels right and comfortable to the listener — an old trick, but one that he never performs in a clinical way.)

It’s Ritual sounds as if it were going to be the most straightforward dance track — a two-step stomp whose rhythm quickly starts subdividing — but instead of peaking around the middle, as dance tracks often do, it starts emptying out, draining itself of life; the last 20 seconds contain a single rhythm getting fainter and fainter.

— BEN RATLIFF, NY Times News Service