The astute reader may have noticed this review is, as the youngsters say, hella late. But to err is human, and even the lords who guard the jail cells above the skull pit are of our own kind, they may begrudgingly admit. So when I saw the spectacular Wheel open for Soen and immediately sought an explanation for why we hadn’t reviewed them, the voice through the trapdoor thundered in its brazen might: “Whoops.” Thankfully, my efforts were not in vain, as they were rewarded with the chance to do a full review rather than letting Moving Backwards be buried under the TYMHM storm at year’s end. Debuts as good as this are few and far between, so it’s safe to say this is an exception well deserved.
First I must quell a collective sigh, though: yes, Wheel is another Tool-influenced prog band. Their website even contains the quote: “While we wait for that next Tool album, we thought we’d just make what we’d want to hear!” There’s been a ludicrous amount of these recently, all scoring highly, and this album will be no different. Yet Wheel do put their own spin on the niche sound, pulling influences from grunge and even a smidge of post-hardcore to supplement their angular riffing and expansive compositions. This also helps ground the music, preventing the endless pretentiousness their heroes are known for. Every movement in the compositions feels like it’s leading somewhere, even on the longer tracks. Transitions are smooth and natural, flowing from ominous low-key buildups to explosive climaxes. No fluff without function, measly mantras or irritating interludes, Moving Backwards is killer (almost) all the way through.
What truly sets the band apart are the performances, which are uniformly flawless. The guitars are highly versatile, stacking layers of hooky riffs and atmosphere, but they’re not the stars of this album. That honor goes to the bass, playing a leading role in the depth of sound with its beefy thrum. It also goes to the drums, whose plentiful use of toms supplemented by hand percussion creates an ominous, tribal atmosphere, capable of punctuating the subtle approaches to the impactful climaxes, where the skins are pounded with rightful anger while remaining seductively versatile. It also goes to the vocals of Britain-born frontman James Lascelles, who is the primary source of grunge comparisons with his fantastic clean vocals. Beyond displaying apt technical abilities, with his perfect pitch, warm timbre, and frequent lengthy screams, he is also able to create the emotional connection that allows being drawn fully into the socio-political lyrics, centering on the return of fascistic ideologies and the apathy of its opponents.
There’re few criticisms to be leveled at Moving Backwards, but the third quarter of the album does fall a little flat in comparison to the first half of the album, with instrumental “Skeletons” halting some of the considerable momenta and “Where The Pieces Lie” feeling less focused. The more personal “Lacking” picks the ball back up, though, and neither of the lesser tracks are outright bad, merely not quite up to the towering heights achieved by explosive leading single “Vultures” and the dynamic “Wheel.” Though a more dynamic master would have been more than welcome, feeling unnecessarily oppressive at times, the mix compensates aptly, with the engorged bass, in particular, an absolute pleasure to behold and the excellent drumming tuned up to a level where it can perfectly drive the music like a whip on a mule.
Moving Backwards is a tremendous, dynamic and versatile album, so much so it’s hard to believe it is only the first full-length of the Finnish-British outfit. Most bands need several attempts to reach the level of maturity and identity Wheel displays, but these four seem to have their entire dynamic pegged from the start, and prove their mettle with prodigious skill at both songwriting and execution. There has been an influx of great prog the last two months, but there is no doubt Wheel deserve their place in that pantheon with their sizzling, brooding debut. This is why you never skip the supporting bands at a concert.