Albums / EPs, Reviews

Album Review: Wild Eastern Arches – Salamander Sun

72In Platform’s recent interview with SA garage-rock prodigies, The Future Primitives, the band shed some light on the hybrid nature of South Africa’s garage/surf/psych scene. Elucidating that this inclusive scene of fuzzier subgenres was a product of there being too few acts in each specific one, the trio also highlighted a few psych-inspired bands on the rise in whom they saw impending rivalry; Wild Eastern Arches was one of them. Whether this constituted a subtle plug owing to both Johnny Tex and Warren Fisher’s involvement in the recording and mixing processes of Salamander Sun is immaterial: following this consistent and beautifully layered record, rivalry with the scene’s best is imminent. But clocking in at seconds over an hour, the sonically dense debut is a lot to absorb in one go and is not without its niggles. 

Citing the likes of genre-pioneers the 13th Floor Elevators and The Doors, as well as modern stalwarts The Black Angels as influences, the multi-instrumentalist five-piece have changed in shape and form over the past 2 and a half years. Their latest iteration as Wild Eastern Arches maintains core psychedelic elements reaching back to the genre’s earliest roots while simultaneously sculpting their own niche with contemporary sensibilities. This appears to be the outfit that will stick. Salamander Sun is modern psych-rock repackaged; nostalgia assumes a mere supporting role here. Much like with Yeezus’ ‘On Sight’ from earlier this year, the introductory ‘Void’ presents a clear statement of artistic intent. The minute-long welcome serves to inform the listener that, unlike the mish-mash scene with which the quintet is associated, a particular direction has been pinpointed: distinctive, psych-infused rock n’ roll designed to kidnap your mind.

‘Silver Green’ marks a slow and steady opener that oozes confidence and eases into to the gorgeous, extroverted ‘Nightingale’. The LP’s first single, ‘Seven Day Itch’ was indeed chosen on artistic merit alone. Placed halfway down the order, the mid-record stunner depicts everything that is right with Salamander Sun and is an apt illustration of the band’s songwriting prowess and chemistry. Vibrato-shaped guitar/organ interlude ‘Something Ghost’ is masterfully placed to pave way to a fittingly dramatic re-imagining of ‘The Rumble’ in what appears to be a tribute to Pulp Fiction-era Quentin Tarantino. Salamander Sun’s poppiest outing, ‘The Death of Emily Moon’, while providing an air of mystery for anyone familiar with the popular Plettenberg Bay restaurant, is the radio-friendliest of the bunch. At two and a half minutes it’s the most likely candidate for single number two – and rightfully so. Bottom-dweller ‘Sister Seer’ is probably not a shout-out to the title-track of Swans’ 2012 behemoth The Seer but nevertheless proves to be a cut-to-scale meditation worthy of the reference. The LP’s eight-minute finale is a highlight of Salamander Sun, with the Cape Town natives offering a synopsis of everything that has just been displayed over the better part of the past hour and a glimpse of what is yet to come. The troupe’s most eastern feel resides on the closing take and offers the final nudge in a resounding team-effort to give the listener an out-of-body experience – whether they seek it or not.

While Benjamin Cox’s vocals share similarities in tone with those of The Antlers’ Peter Silberman, they do not bear the same haunting appeal that characterises the engrossing depth of so much of the Antlers’ work. This is apparent on ‘Tale of Two Cities’ where, instead of intertwining with its instrumental layers, it feels as if his vocals tend to constrict them and consequently produce an ambient discord. This criticism is, however, admittedly inconsequential in regard to an album stand-out like ‘India’ – a woozy, reminiscing ode to Mother India and its influence on the world of psychedelia and picture of vocal/instrumental symbiosis.

Despite the seamless transition from track to track, the album is best ingested in two or three doses. As the listener tires, the band plays on and it becomes hard to keep up. Thankfully, the lengthier expositions are kept separate by shorter, experimental numbers, but the album’s consistent fealty to the trip-you-out tenets of psyche-rock can’t help but work against it here. The separations notwithstanding, during prolonged listens, it sometimes feels that certain songs just blend into others. Perhaps live shows wherein the band performs the album in its entirety would not yield the same opprobrium, as the energy and vitality with which they play would be tangible and fed off by the audience. An hour-long set of the calibre of musicianship displayed on Salamander Sun would, in theory, hardly be felt at all.

With or without the aforementioned hybrid scene of ours, Wild Eastern Arches are certainly a reason to be excited. Salamander Sun is an impressive, cohesive showcase of the band’s talent with flaws that will hopefully be remedied as they mature together in this particular reincarnation. As with last year’s Mountain EP, the album has been independently released. On the strength of this record, I do not think this will be the case for their sophomore offering.

You can stream and buy the album below:

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