Wednesday, September 11, 2013

WMP Nominees - Winter Villains

I'm in the process of listening to each Welsh Music Prize-nominated album in turn. If you missed my Fist of the First Man write-up last week, you'll want to read that first.

From the moment I hit 'Publish' on last Wednesday's Fist of the First Man review, I started to feel guilty. Not merely because I wasn't nice about the album, but because the qualms I had expressed were almost entirely founded on disappointed expectations, rather than any actual issues with the record itself. I had paid for those songs under the assumption that they would bear some relation to the spectacle I witnessed in Buffalo Bar on that cold December night, and when they kind of didn't, it ceased to matter what the album actually sounded like because it wasn't what I wanted. If Tallahassee taught me anything, it's that high expectations can ruin even the best albums.

It was worries such as these that drove me to choose February as my next WMP album. Winter Villains were the only nominees with whom I was completely unacquainted, and as such, I had no expectations for them to disappoint.

Or that was the plan. I quickly realised that, in spite of the unfamiliarity - in spite of never having heard a note of their music, or read a word that's been written about them - I had still made several assumptions about how this album would sound. Most of them were based solely on the album art; a band with the word 'winter' in their name sent someone out to the woods to take a photo that could be used as the cover for their upcoming record, which incidentally would be named after the second-crappest month of the year*.

Basically, I didn't expect to enjoy this album. That Bon Iver-inspired sensitive hipster forest folk thing is all well and good, but it's not really my cup of tea; I think those artists have a tendency to prioritise "atmosphere" over genuine emotion and, y'know, good tunes.

But once again, my expectations have been confounded, and this time for the better. February is actually a very engaging listen, and while it's certainly not short on atmosphere, it's all underpinned with decent tunes, so I'm okay with it. My favourites are The Air (for the squad of violinists sawing away at their strings in the background), Patterns (for its Mogwai-esque beginnings and the 'cover up' chorus), and Moon (for the fact that it reminds me of the music from Winter Bells).

And then there's Thorns, perhaps the album's centrepiece. It starts fairly inconspicuously, but after a minute or two the song gives way to a clicky electronic drum track and sparse, beautiful piano playing. Then the band come back to take the song to its rousing, Arcade Fiery conclusion. It's a real show-stopper.

There are some problems, but they're mostly down to my own personal preferences. The choral vocals, prevalent throughout, get on my nerves after a while, and it would be nice to hear a lone voice poking through it all on occasion. I'm also not that bothered by the lyrics; it's all icicles and trees and whatever, and very few of the songs seem to be actually about anything (although I'd love to be proven wrong - if any Winter Villains are reading this, feel free to leave some song meanings in the comments).

As for the atmosphere, though, I actually quite like it. True to its title (not to mention the band's name), the album sounds very wintry and outdoorsy, and it makes for a great listen on these early autumn mornings. it better than Praxis Makes Perfect?

No, although I do feel a bit bad about this one. I've only had February for a few days, whereas I've been to see a full-blown theatre performance based on Praxis - it's lodged quite firmly in my head and heart by this point, and if any of the other WMP nominees want to beat Neon Neon, they've got a serious mountain to climb. I enjoyed February far more than I expected - I'm actually quite excited to hear more from these guys - but I'm confident that even without the theatrics, tunes like The Jaguar and The Leopard would still appeal to my tastes slightly more than the likes of The Air. It's a no from me for now, but who knows? By the time February actually does arrive, I may have reversed this decision in favour of Winter Villains.

I'm going straight from winter to summer next week, so come back on Wednesday to find out what I make of Summer Special by Euros Childs.

*January is obviously the crappest month of all. The cream of the crap, if you will.

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