Austin – North London’s Wolf Alice supposedly has roots as a folk band, but you would never guess it hearing their Holy Mountain set in Austin last Friday. The setlist was front loaded with the group’s loudest indie/hard rock hybrids, songs like “Fluffy” and “She”, carefully engineered with lengthy instrumental breaks for relieving head-thrashing urges. Holy Mountain fit that agenda perfectly, with its buzzy acoustics and oversized sound system, plus the low stage putting the audience at shin height and arm’s length from the band.
There are places where that folk upbringing shines through, though. Like on “90 Mile Beach”—appropriately, one of their older songs. It’s woozy, melodic, and slow in a way that evokes the same precious, hold-your-girlfriend atmosphere aspired to by a lot of contemporary folk music. The contrast isn’t really jarring or unpleasant, but it does remind you that Wolf Alice’s similarities with garage rock, grunge, and other provocative rock movements begins and ends with the sound of cranked up guitars. There is no kicking out the jams here, no ambition beyond making good pop music of a particular kind. And that’s okay, and it leads to a few altogether great songs.
Greatest of those songs could be “Giant Peach”, a sterling example of what Wolf Alice does best. Namely, the mixing of a strong melodic sensibility with the grandiosity of 90’s stadium alt rock. Much of this effect comes from the vocal talents of Ellie Rowsell, whose voice complements these songs a little better than the tuneless wail of your average Eddie Veder. But the songwriting is just as important, and “Giant Peach” gives Rowsell a great backing track to work with—a high tempo, dark toned hard rock track in the vein of Black Sabbath and the less radio-friendly cuts from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
“She” confirms that Wolf Alice works best when they’re playing at this speed. The fuzzy, fuzzy bass and skipping drums might be a little cloying if that was all there was to the song, but the song wins on the strength of a rising surf-rock styled guitar melody. This song also sees Wolf Alice sell a trick they try many times elsewhere: the ultra quiet late-song bridge, where the vocals get soft and every instrument besides guitar drops out of the mix. It’s another moment where folk roots become obvious, and a rare instance where a group manages to have the best of both worlds.
There are no obvious places you can point to and say Yup, Wolf Alice definitely listens to [Hole, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, The Replacements, Etc.]”. But they do leave you with the vague impression that they’re going for something very similar. Both their history and their sound suggest that the group sometimes gets a little lost, and when they get lost they seem to revert to safe territory in the form of loud, rock-out bridges that don’t really lead anywhere. Still, the band has managed to make me feel positive about Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains, and the 70’s worshipping post-Nirvana scene in general. And that’s something that hasn’t happened in a long, long time.
Wolf Alice have a busy summer ahead of them. They’re touring the UK and Europe, with a few dates internationally and a tantalizing handful of dates in the US that culminate in an ACL appearance.
See Wolf Alice before then, if you can—this is nostalgic summer evening music, and there’s no better time to see them than June and July.
Photo of Wolf Alice live by Wolf Alice