It starts suddenly. A cool, noir beat thumps while a nasally voice reads. When “A Mirror” goes into its first chorus, it even sounds a beat like the band Why? It is an unexpected turn for Wreck & Reference’s new album, Absolute Still Life. In their earliest form, the sampler and drum duo were actually known for fierier, metal-adjacent electronic noise rock, but they are clearly branching out into a whole new thing.
“Sturdy Dawn” continues this new style, with a reading and solid beats. These sort of spoken word bits are risky, but the band actually does it quite well. There are lyrics about being an actor trying to memorize lines. Brooding bass synth lines interact with sparse and intense beats, interrupting electronic sounds, and a melody that cuts through it all. Finally, the screams come. They are just what the listener wanted. The vocals coalesce, with the screams and spoken word both saying “more silence.”
This album also incorporates guitar that isn’t sampled, an ostensible first for the band. Floating background vocals soar angelically. Vocal loops creep and crawl. Driving melodies evoke images of movement, parallel lines, and smoking cigarettes. Always, always there are great beats and intriguing lyrics.
There are at least four different vocal textures in “Stubborn Lake,” and they only feel like a lead and background vocal. Pinging electronics and odd live bass and beat time signatures work strangely but perfectly together. The bridge gives you the simple 4-4 that you want after the confusion. When the vocals return, it’s in a relentless barrage of circling hymns and chaos unfolds.
The first time the spoken word isn’t great is when “What Goes in and Come Out” begins. It’s more of a ballad, which isn’t conducive to the emotionally distant nasally voice. Though it’s not my favorite, it fits right in and adds a nice change of pace. The choppy guitars and pianos are also very nice.
Only screams on “What is a Gift,” which creates for a great contrast to the previous track. The flow of this record is impeccable. Halfway through, and it feels effortless. One of my favorite moments of the record is when there are bells that ring out and wind that whistles. Birds sing, and bass supports the bells. It sounds like the vocals are difficult, but it just spoken word. Lyrics about wearing a uniform compliment the lines about being an actor.
The soulful vocal loops and the clean reading on “Dumb Forest” manage to be unique. “Amends” is likely the most beautiful track on the record. From beginning to end, the electronics on this are always on point. They can be beautiful, abrasive, loud, soft, dynamic, and intricate. The record is thematically cohesive and philosophical. The lyrics question basic things and are constantly wrestling with themselves. The melodies are nearly always moody and solemn. Absolute Still Life covers a lot of ground, and it is Wreck & Reference at its most diverse and ambitious.