Shapeshifters W.H. Lung deliver the music of secretive dance clubs of the ’80s on their seductive and cathartic sophomore album, ‘Vanities’.
Since W.H. Lung‘s arrival a half-decade ago, they immediately discarded any notion they were another band. Their songs were fearless like the eras from which they drew inspiration. Seventies krautrock, ’80s synth-pop, and 2010 art-rock were flamboyantly channeled and often melded together in an electrifying way. Tom Sharkett (guitar), Joe Evans (vocals), Hannah Peace (synths, vocals), Chris Mulligan (bass, synths), and Alex Mercer Main (drums), as such, became known as shapeshifters, where no two songs sounded the same. The quintet’s artistic genius was fully displayed on their debut, Incidental Music, which was one of 2019’s most outstanding albums. It was a massive statement from a band who humbly grew up in Manchester.
Never ones to be stationary, W.H. Lung immediately went to work on a new album, and the progress was accelerated with the emergence of a lockdown. As shapeshifters, the group was not going to limit themselves to the creativity displayed two years earlier. They instead extend themselves further; only this time they take listeners to the secretive dance clubs of the ’80s, where bleakness and darkness are made hypnotic. Where coldwave, post-punk, new wave, psych-disco, and krautrock come together into one seductive and cathartic ensemble, which is what Vanities is.
As they did with Incidental Music, W.H. Lung turn Vanities into a sonic tale of endless exploration. Darkwave beats and disco-psych grooves penetrate through opening track, “Calm Down”, creating a suspenseful yet alluring soundscape. Evans’ whisper-like voice invites listeners into the band’s new underworld, where we can dance away the problems that exist above ground. The mesmerizing kaleidoscope that is “Gd Tym” possesses The Music’s piercing energy, Depeche Mode’s exhilarating broodiness, dizzying psych vibes of POND, and the shadowy coolness of Cold Cave. It is an all-consuming number that describes how we wear masks and costumes to hide our true identities.
The ongoing search for life’s meaning is further addressed on the exhilarating, space-disco, “Pearl In The Palm”. Like the Jupiter 2 hurtling through space at light speed, W.H. Lung deliver a dance song for the ages. While Peace’s synths burst, Evans wittingly sings, “As the saying goes, I feel like I’m close enough to hear the very grass grow”. His lyrics denote how close to the ground he is while others are celebrating with champagne. His life is less worthy than others for no other reason than wealth.
The ride settles down for a moment with the cool and dazzling “Ways of Seeing”, which buzzes with the synth-pop flair of Future Islands. Through the sublime synths and blustery rhythms, the band offer a reminder that it is possible to break free from the sadness and gloom that grip us. The song is as much a reaction to life during a pandemic as it is an observation that one’s destiny is still to be determined. W.H. Lung extend this message on the even more intoxicating “ARPi”, which sees the outfit at their most intimate and dreamy.
Then the album turns, ending with a quartet of songs that form one of the best set of tracks on any album. “Showstopper” wraps art-rock, nu-disco, and post-punk into one cool yet brooding number. The approach sets up the song’s theme, which addresses how desperation can lead to people to achieve one last great feat together.
“It’s a fatal vulnerability that says,
‘You know, to hell with it’, but I’m at peace with my decision
And my body and my body and my body is a river, as it sings along
I feel fine, I’m quite in love with your smile and movement my child
Oh yes, I feel fine, shall we glimmer and rise together
One last time?”
Just as it seems the band may stay within the shadows, they reach for the stars on the euphoric, dance-pop tune, “Figure with Flowers”. What makes the track remarkable is its restraint. Instead of blowing listeners away with wall-shaking rhythms, explosive guitars, and surging synths, the Manchester outfit dial down every element so we can immerse ourselves in its layers and its story of how more things change, the more they stay the same. But things don’t stay the same for W.H. Lung, who dial up the infectious qualities on “Somebody Like”. The five-piece have crafted a song made for every dance floor imaginable, as deep rhythms and surging synths create the equivalent of an inescapable sonic vortex. Trapped is Evans, who sings about how the image of one person has imprisoned him.
Whether the album’s ultimate single, “Kaya”, recites the cause of his imprisonment, a sense of liberation is felt in Evans’ elated vocal and the crisp, breezy vibes of the track. “Alone and I’m happy for you”, he sings to her. By acknowledging her happiness, Evans, too, can finally move on. He can escape this underworld that he, Sharkett, Peace, Mulligan, and Mercer Main invited us to at the beginning. That they can move from the darkness and into the light and start another chapter. Where W.H. Lung go next is a great mystery, but they surely will again mesmerize, enthrall, and innovate.
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