Wooden Shjips / Helicon @ SWG3, Glasgow 12/12/2013
Even if not much is known about Helicon, those with keen powers of observation can get a good idea in advance. The split with Spain’s Celestial Bums hints at a similar keen appreciation of tight, tripped-out jams; the Ganesh that hangs from their synths might be an indication that they lean towards ethereal, lucid-dreaming sounds; and the few half-bottles of Buckfast dotted around the stage make it a strong probability that they’re from the greater Glasgow area. These Sherlock-style insights soon turn out to be on the money, but even the coked-up sleuth himself couldn’t quite fathom the range of their sound. The brisk percussion as they drop into full-on Hawkwind territory, battling through cosmic elements with barked monologues and baths of distortion; gentle teasings of synth over six-string Kraut mantras that seemingly span an eternity yet turn out to be concise, tightly-honed constructs that only provide the (wholly convincing) illusion of temporal estrangement; the ever-present spectre of My Bloody Valentine that hangs in the air, subtly exuding some strange pheromone that sits between ‘lazy summer sex’ and ‘fried delay pedal’.
It’s a pretty heady blend but the combination of high volume and a fluidic kinship between this handful of like-minded cats gives it a strangely accessible tone. Only the set’s final cut seems to overstay its welcome, and even then it’s only by a slim margin. Whether through intuition or trial and error, they spin their songs only to the borderline of tedium, either by wrapping it up or through a well-placed solo, typically executed with a loose sense of precision that sheds exhibitionism for even-handedness. You can spot the appreciative nods throughout the crowd, from aging acid casualties to dudes in flannel shirts with couture beards, and so it’s pretty much a given that their efforts have proven successful.
Thankfully it’s not long before Wooden Shjips humbly take the stage, though the building has filled out nicely in the interim, with the crowd exuding that potent blend of appreciation and drunken enthusiasm that normally preludes a great night. Ripley Johnson and co do their best to meet expectations by slipping into ‘Black Smoke Rise’, Johnson’s guitar hiding behind a smokescreen of distortion and providing a soft landing for Nash Whalen’s hyper-lucid bursts of colour. They’re a little bit quieter than Helicon’s more prominent tones but this seems very much in keeping with the band these days. They play much more with texture, ‘Flight’ surfing stealthily by, despite the slight Sabbath buzz going on behind the veil, with the result that listening to them is somewhat sensual, all throbbing bass and soft caresses.
Still, they’re hardly Enya, are they? ‘Ruins’, one of only two tracks from this year’s absurdly fun ‘Back To Land’ to get an airing tonight, is insistent to the point of pushiness, Dusty Jermier’s boisterous bassline unstoppable in its drive to get toes tapping. The danceability is off the scale and when it gets to Johnson’s brisk, border-blues solo, even he seems lost to the emanating ripples, closed-eyed and devoted to the beat. ‘Aquarian Time’ likewise steps up the energy but in a more urgent fashion, Whalen’s efforts sharper and more incisive while Johnson likewise takes a harder approach, ramping up the fuzz to the point where things start to get a bit too hazy, only his voice really lifting the assembled from slipping.
With the exception of Whalen and his sometimes vast divergences, Wooden Shjips might well be one of the greatest examples of minimalism done well. Johnson’s vocals rarely lift from that same celestial monotone while his guitarwork could best be described as relaxed, even the soloing taking an unhurried but remarkably expressive path back to its true course. The basslines are an exercise in regularity that verges on metronomic, and the drumming? Omar Ahsanuddin may have one of the sparsest kits I’ve seen in many a year but he has turned what could have been a disability to his advantage, both exacting in his precision yet possessing a free, uncluttered style that lends itself to short burst of unexpected creativity. Too diverse for the Krautrock tag and more honed and concise than the average psychedelic also-ran, they make for an involving and perfectly balanced listen that you can never be too drunk (or too sober) to enjoy.
Scribed by: Dave Bowes
Photos by: Peter Davidson