Early on England’s Wild Beasts reveled in the Morrissey-like theatrics spilling from their brooding indie rock, with dual vocalists Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming candidly gnawing the scenery of each track. They were an acquired taste. The vocals felt like one continuous flourish, practically operatic in form, and the band’s first two solid albums, Limbo, Panto (2008) and Two Dancers (2009), flaunt a bravado that sometimes prevents you from seeing the forest for the trees. But since the release of 2011’s Smother, the foursome has gradually edged into synth-loaded landscapes while tempering the torturedness—their voices fusing to the dark melodies rather than strolling atop them. And more so than ever on the new Boy King, Wild Beasts seem especially comfortable and confident with their wayward electro. Which only shows in the added coats of glitz.
The record has a very different swagger, though it’s no less sexual and adversarial in tone (the fellows love chopping away at machismo). Notice the album art depicts a glowing, possessed Bicentennial Man complemented by a Carpenter-backed script. It’s a menacing image, though implicitly complemented by a sly side glance and wink. Like St. Vincent, Wild Beasts understand a potential to be more than an efficient and reliable rock band—one that releases well-received albums at a two-year clip and demands Christgau approval—as they aim for the curiosity of outer space while maintaining their distinct pop sensibility. Boy King opener “Big Cat,” fronted by Thorpe’s winding falsetto, threads funk into chill-strutting electro synth lines as shreds of guitar cut through the track’s background. It’s about as different as Wild Beasts have ever sounded, at least until the off-kilter anthem of “Tough Guy” (“Now I’m all fucked up / And I can’t stand up / So I better suck it up / Like a tough guy would”).
That track’s jagged sing-along chorus—threaded with a bouncy rhythm and stunted abrupt synths—is the type that best accompanies any dance party at which freak flags are encouraged to let fly. The futurism infused in the already dark and cunning sound of Wild Beasts makes their presence feel even more foreboding. Fronted by Fleming’s baritone—which isn’t as effective in this setting as Fleming’s voice—“2BU” is an example of how Wild Beasts now wield minimal synth swells and melodies and toil in negative space. And how they summon an equal amount of thrill in the process. Of course the tone still gets plenty sultry and emotive, because Wild Beasts are never not going to be dramatic in tone. A track like “He The Colossus” is so textured, however, that even the subterrestrial blown-out breakdown buried within it feels woven right into the seams. Boy King is likely to estrange devotees to Wild Beasts’ early catalog of drums-bass-guitar music, but no doubt Thorpe, Fleming, and company are the ones most aware of that fact.