Falls back on tried-and-true patterns of arrangement.
Since forming in 2009, The Wilderness of Manitoba has been in a constant state of flux, with members coming and going. Will Whitwham is the creative force forging ahead with the band, departures be damned. While the band/collective’s sound has evolved between each album, its music has consistently kept its focus on vocal harmonies, with a strong female vocalist present in each iteration. Hymns of Love & Spirits and When You Left the Fire introduced them as a four-part harmony chamber folk band with somber, lyrically beautiful tracks. Island of Echoes and Between Colours then brought in a rockier, poppier sound, spurred by indie electric guitars. It seems only natural that the fifth album would bridge these two modes.
Whitwham and newer recruit Raven Shields form the vocal duo harmonizing around rumbling guitars. Across the Dark opens with its most upbeat track, “Head for the Hills,” which recalls the buoyancy of “Big Skies” from Between Colours. Although the band is smaller than its original lineup, it by no means sounds smaller. While this album doesn’t feature whole-band harmonies, Whitwham and Shields have a jaunty interplay. While Whitwham’s writing these days doesn’t try to forge nu-folk hymns, it still bears a pastoral bent, as on “Head for the Hills” with its call for a return to the wilderness, ostensibly to escape the decay of the city.
Where Across the Dark most diverts from previous albums is its embrace of rockier guitars. Opener “Head for the Hills” features a mid-song guitar solo bridge, and both “Dead End Eyes” and “Safe from Sin” end on a solid minute of fuzzy guitar riffs. And the entirety of “Dead End Eyes” is built around a hypnotically repetitive bass line from Tavo Diez de Bonilla. This rockier sound, when paired with Whitwham’s writing, makes for a classic rock sound, by way of breezy folk. Several tracks here have ’60s and ’70s vibes galore, namely “Run from the Dark” and “Cindy Runs,” which nods to ’60s pop with its bright guitar riff and Whitwham’s Beach Boys-esque delivery.
Where Shields differs from former vocalist Melissa Dalton is in her lower register, lending tracks like “Easier” a somber, elegiac tone. The track serves as both a spotlight for Shields (who also performed on The Tin Shop EP) and an outlier on the album. In some ways, it seems to fit in better with the band’s earlier work in its simple combination of vocals, spare guitar and unobtrusive drums. Unlike most tracks, Whitwham only joins on vocals for the chorus, essentially allowing Shields to carry the song. “Clovers,” with its twangy country sound, similarly sees Shields take lead vocals and assume the role of a heartsick lover. Complementing “Easier” and “Clovers” is “Safe from Sin” and “Old Fear,” which feature Whitwham’s lead vocals accompanied by a gently finger-plucked guitar. Shields joins on the first chorus and, with a gentle electric guitar thrum, carries on to the end of the songs.
Across the Dark displays variety from Whitwham, but the album as a whole unfortunately suffers from a uniform quality. Even though the album flits between the country-folk of “Clovers” and “On My Mind” to the lite-rock of “Run from the Dark” and the balladry of “Easier” and “Safe from Sin,” the sentiments, vocal harmonies and Whitwham’s melodies struggle to distinguish themselves. Whether this is due to Whitwham writing the entire album himself is unclear, but if the band’s history is anything to go by, The Wilderness of Manitoba sound most interesting after some personnel shifting. Given too long, the band gets stuck in their ways and falls back on tried and true patterns of arrangement.