Hey, remember when Robin Pecknold and the rest of Fleet Foxes made Jethro Tull cool again, a few years back? Me neither, but I’ll be damned if Fleet Foxes and their stately, anachronistic melodies and lyrical concerns didn’t sound similarly thick as bricks. Take “My God” from perennial Dad-favorite, Aqualung; about four minutes in, you’ve got the weird, disembodied voices of minstrels in the gallery, chanting in a way that can only be described as medieval. Temper this oddly antiquated sound with Beach Boys harmonies, more-evocative, less-polemic lyrics and you’ve at least got a blueprint for Pecknold’s tunes. Though what Tull had in their most memorable material that Pecknold thus far has no use for are bone-crunchingly amplified guitar riffs. If at this point, you’re still interested, this is where England’s Wolf People comes into play, their Welsh country house-birthed Steeple retaining that chilly, musical feel of Old Albion that Ian Anderson dug so well, with some nasty electric guitar rounding it out.
Wolf People’s previous efforts, including the collection Tidings, were more the solo recordings of frontman Jack Sharp, so Steeple sees the group as a band coalescing into something noteworthy. I’d first heard the band on last year’s strange comic strip-music tie-in A Psychedlic Guide to Monsterism Island, where, coincidentally, they served as the sole contributors whose music didn’t inspire in me a sense of music-hating dread. Steeple effectively picks up where the harvest gold-tinted, true-to-life ’70s leanings of that disc’s “Village Strollin'” left off; “Silbury Sands” introduces Wolf People as Sharp’s boyish, though elegant vocals singing lyrics concerning melancholic figures pining away in melancholic, English settings, while Joe Hollick’s guitar burns as fierce as any British classic rock guitarist’s you’d care to name. Wait for it – the second track, “Tiny Circle,” makes no bones about the band’s inspirations; with that flute and the stomping, slightly funky rhythm, it’s hard not to recall Tull’s “Cross-Eyed Mary.”
Steeple then is all well and good so far, but during the full-length’s middle third Hollick absolutely steals the show. “Painted Cross” features Sharp doing his best Jack Bruce, though he can’t compete with Hollick’s needling riff, which grows into a needling solo, evolving next into uncertain chiming arpeggios to end the tune. “Morning Born” has Sharp getting all natural on us, singing about how “the Earth feels good/ To [him],” before Hollick lights it up once more with two probing solos full of the kind of warm tube amp break-up that means this guy has got to be a vintage gear nut in addition to being a mean lead player. The song fades into “Cromlech,” which is where Hollick gets to stretch out; an instrumental, Sharp steps to the side to let his lead guitarist brand the record as more than just a retro style pastiche.
“One By One From Dorney Reach” and “Castle Keep” have their way with you too, Hollick’s work sounding pummeling, then searching, respectively; by that point it’s too late for Sharp to take back the floor. Both portions of “Banks of Sweet Dundee” attempt to tell some sort of Victorian-era story about ploughboys and press gangs but, at this point, those songs are too wordy and devoid of the musical drama – if not the lyrical – that the long, preceding stretch of the record boasted. Sharp’s got a hell of a little rock ‘n’ roll band here and his songs aren’t bad; he needs to find some way to get his vocals to matter. That said, Steeple, as a debut of sorts, is a very welcome autumn release that, at the very least, introduces a latter day guitar hero it will be a pleasure to hear from again.