This latest LP from Wolf Eyes is something of a major release for the duo, as they are currently celebrating their 25th year with "their first widely-distributed non-compilation album in six years." Fittingly, Dreams In Splattered Lines is one of the project's most compelling and sophisticated albums to date, which is likely the result of some recent developments that would have seemed absolutely unimaginable when the project first began (collaborating with a Pulitzer Prize winner, a viral video for a fashion company, sharing stages with jazz titans, a residency at The New York Public Library, etc.). The library residency in particular played an especially large role in shaping this album, as the duo built a number of new instruments while they were there and also spent a lot of time absorbing the Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of course, the truly interesting bit is how inventively Nate Young and John Olson assimilated all their new ideas, as well as the fact that their more high art/avant-garde influences amusingly collide with a newfound fascination with how "hit songs" work. While Wolf Eyes have sporadically dazzled me over the years as a cool noise band, Dreams In Splattered Lines feels like the album where they have arguably become the spiritual heirs to Throbbing Gristle in channeling the best ideas of the 20th century avant-garde into a zeitgeist-capturing mirror of the times (a post-hope world of crumbling institutions and widespread alienation).
The album is billed as "a surreal dreamscape of disorienting sound collages, where hit songs are transformed into terrariums of sonic flora and decimated fauna," which is a considerably more elegant description than my own "a masterfully choreographed ballet of shit." The album itself is not shit, of course, but the sounds themselves are quite a cavalcade of rotten, shambling, broken, strangled, and ugly sounds conjured from inventively misused gear. The opening "Car Wash Two" is an especially illustrative example of the latter, as it "includes a Short Hands track playing on the car radio while waves of white noise and contact microphones are plunging into water buckets." That trick was then coupled with an added "meta" twist: the recording was then "played in a car while going through an actual car wash" before it was ultimately layered and mixed in the studio. Notably, that piece is singled out as an example of the duo's new "hit single" mindset, but that trait is only evident in an oblique way that involves terrariums. More immediately graspable, however, is the fact that almost every song on the album is distilled to a punchy two- or three-minute running time. On the lesser pieces, it can sometimes feel like a song is over before it gets a chance to make a deep impression, but the stronger pieces tend to regularly attain "all killer, no filler" nirvana.
While terms like "horror jazz" and "psycho jazz" have been used to describe Wolf Eyes many times before (presumably because of John Olson's arsenal of self-built wind instruments), this is the first album that I have heard where the duo genuinely seem to evince the virtuosity of a visionary jazz unit. That virtuosity is admittedly not of the rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic variety, but I cannot think of many other artists that can pull off more impressive feats with texture (or who could even figure out how to use the duo's eclectic arsenal of gear). The analogy that springs immediately to mind is that of practical special effects versus sophisticated CGI effects in horror films, as DIY gore can sometimes feel a lot more viscerally disturbing than digitized perfection. The same is true here, as plenty of artists get amazing sounds from expensive gear and powerful software, but Young and Olson regularly churn out wonderfully squelching, gnarled, and sickly sounds that no one else can get with their array of self-built instruments and convoluted chains of electronics. More importantly, they have a deep intuitive understanding of how to wield all those weird sounds, embracing a seething strain of minimalism that leaves plenty of space for each screech, gurgle, and splatter to be felt.
Unsurprisingly, the strongest pieces are those that most feel like songs, which tend to be those where Young delivers some kind of morbid deadpan monologue over a drum machine pattern strafed with sputtering, buzzing electronics and squalls of noise (such as "Exploding Time" and "My Whole Life"). That said, once the album starts to catch fire around the midpoint, just about every single song is noteworthy in some way. My favorite piece is a bit of an aberration, however, as "In Society" sounds like a bunch of Muppets were unknowingly dosed with LSD before covering Aaron Dilloway's "Karaoke With Cal" and chaos ensued. I'm also quite fond of "Days Decay" though, as the thumping drum machine is a bit more muscular than usual and a Middle Eastern-sounding woodwind motif elusively surfaces in the seething undercurrent of machine noise like some kind of post-industrial Debussy homage. Obviously, it is not hard to become numb to Wolf Eyes' vision, given their insanely voluminous discography and passion for messy spontaneity and experimentation, but the fact that their evolution is a bit overdocumented does not make that evolution any less impressive, as there are plenty of genuine flashes of outsider brilliance to be found on Dreams In Splattered Lines.