Style: Psychedelic Rock
Release Date: 29 Nov 2019
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I enjoyed this album from Belgium's Wheel of Smoke, which is a lot more laid back than the psychedelic rock I've been reviewing lately. Instead of being taken on a wild trip through the cosmos or whatever a particular band plans for us on a particular album, it felt more like I was experiencing it all at a remove. I never felt like I left my chair but I did imagine somebody else going on that trip. Maybe it's more of a dream than a trip. It feels safer.
You probably won't be surprised to find that the album consists of five long songs, ranging from just over five minutes to almost ten. The first surprise is that this veers relatively quickly into space rock territory, because the cover doesn't suggest that sort of approach. However, the title track, which opens up the album, soon finds itself in a Hawkwind vibe, down to the mildly buried vocals and some sound effects.
Sonic Cure is a good song. It starts out exotic with an indeterminate middle Eastern feel, perhaps closer to the cover art. The tempo speeds up a couple of minutes in to feel a little more urgent, but it's still relaxing in that dreamy sense. The vocals show up over halfway through and remain throughout; they're intelligible but I didn't really focus on words, content to let them roll over my like the instruments.
Brainshaker continues in the Hawkwind style, with an incessant riff setting the groundwork but surrounded by swirling keyboards and overlaid with guitar soloing. This one starts out with a delicate groove, like Hawkwind covering the Beatles, but it builds to recognisable Motörhead changes. There are no vocals here but the song evolves, repeating themes in different ways but in a planned fashion. This doesn't sound like a jam.
Beamed starts even softer, with some nice interplay between guitar and bass, but the guitar goes jagged without ever becoming jarring. Given that there's some Pink Floyd sound in the backing, that's perhaps understandable. While I enjoyed this and the earlier tracks, I was feeling a little apart from this, even though it ought to be immersive.
Then On a Wave shows up and Wheel of Smoke demonstrate what they do best. It features vocals again, but playful ones that seem to aim more for rhythm and sound than meaning. I'm not sure if they were subjected to subtle effects or they were delivered that way, but they sound integral. I caught words, which are surreal. "Aliens create electric cheese," someone chants, "surfing on a wave and feeling high."
It's not just the vocals though, as the vibe here is delightful with another neat interplay between guitar and bass growing throughout the song. While I may not have found myself transported onto a wave with the band, I certainly didn't want this song to end and I found it impossible not to move. It's so endowed with motion that I needed a moment to reorient myself to level when it was done, like a sailor stepping foot on dry land for the first time in a few months.
That leaves Electric I to wrap things up. It's the longest song on the album and it's agreeable enough, but it struggles to match On a Wave, which turns out to be the highlight of the album, even as the album as a whole starts to coalesce into a single entity. Listening to it, it feels like it's a set of individual tracks. Once it's over, it immediately feels like an album, with what sticks in mind applying to the whole thing.
I believe Wheel of Smoke are aiming at a heavy psychedelic rock sound but it never gets as heavy as I think they want it to. Maybe that's production, but I think it's more the inherently mellow vibe the band has. They seem relaxed and open to whatever's going to happen next, as if the music is happening to them as well as us. Rather than actively creating something to take us on an exotic trip, they passively set the wheels in motion and sit back with us to experience the album washing over us all.
That's an odd feeling to get but I can't say that it wasn't enjoyable. This is really hard not to enjoy. It's warm, friendly, comforting psychedelia at its worst and it's even warmer, friendlier and more comforting at its best. It's an album to wrap yourself in and feel better.