Listening to music in the modern era is, often times, a more complicated feat than people give it credit for. For decades the almighty Genre reigned over the musical landscape with an iron fist. Existence within the confines of a certain set of musical motifs, traits, and/or rules was not only grounds for classification as a certain type of musician, but a baseline requirement for existence as musician itself.
Now, years after the burgeoning internet music scene birthed its first overnight successes, Genre no longer rules. Constant exposure to any and every kind of music coming from any and every kind of artist, regardless of background, training, or marketability, has fundamentally transformed the significance of genre and its borderlines.
Where, once upon a time, it was all but national news that Bob Dylan “went electric” preconceptions about what defines any variety of art are, nowadays, more often used to subvert expectations than they are to solidify one’s place in a labeled box. Expectations, however, are – in an ironic twist – almost non-existent themselves in the expect-the-unexpected echo chamber that is the internet. How, then, does an artist navigate the subversion arms race without becoming tangled in self-contradiction for the sake of contradiction? Just ask Wilder Maker.
The Brooklyn band, signed to Northern Spy, seems to master contradiction, not as an empty vessel for shock value or provocation, but rather as an art form that subtly picks apart preconceptions about rock music in 2018 before deftly rebuilding them over seven tracks.
Intro cut “Closer to God” begins with a droning crescendo, building for ten seconds or so before abruptly cutting off and transitioning into a slick, mid-tempo guitar riff. Throw some marching, offbeat drumming in the left channel, add a funky bass line and bump the tempo up ten to twenty beats per minute and you get a resounding mission statement. Gabriel Birnbaum’s lyricism immediately finds itself front and center, gesticulating wildly somewhere between free association and poetic genius. Six minutes later the track has gone through so many dramatic transitions, shifts, and reversals that it’s hard to remember where you started.
The second track, “Impossible Summer” serves as an introduction to the group’s other lead vocalist: Katie Von Schleicher. A perfect foil to Birnbaum’s heavy, frantic style, Von Schleicher’s voice soars high above the ground, powerful and emotionally intense – at times the spitting image of Adrianne Lenker, and no less hauntingly beautiful for it. Jumping octaves over saw-tooth keyboards and finger-picked guitars Von Schleicher anchors the song and provides an album highlight.
At this point in the listening experience those expecting a standard, low-key rock album are sure to be thoroughly confused. That, in and of itself, however, isn’t much of a feat. The real power of Zion is its ability to confound the listener no matter what they’re expecting. Bounding gracefully between rock opera grandeur, groove-oriented jazz, soft spoken folk, and harsh noise, the record never ceases to turn left at the last second, or the first second, or any second in between.
This unpredictable musical nature finds added poignancy in context of the album’s lyrical themes and motifs. On the towering album centerpiece “Women Dancing Immortal” Birnbaum – in one breath – professes that he is “awake in Zion” and – in the next – laments that he can “only get there alone.” Whether Zion is to be taken as Biblical allusion or to be considered a place existing parallel to, inside of, or outside of our understanding, Wilder Maker aren’t alone.
On each and every song here Wilder Maker manage to position themselves in a mystical middle ground between the old and new, the definable and undefinable, the seen and the unseen, and does so with a self-awareness and complete control that one can’t help but be pulled in with them. A final, fundamental, remarkable contradiction in a work of art lined with dazzling incongruence.