Given their name, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Wild Beasts are a tough metal band. But they’re actually fey British lads, working in theatrical pop with shards of post-punk and Broadway (or West End) play scores tossed in, playing the role of the new British eccentrics. That’s how it goes with Wild Beasts and their excellent debut, Limbo, Panto: Expectations and preconceptions are meant to be broken, and the band’s audience meant to be left befuddled.
The band takes its name from a movement called Fauvism (which means "the wild beasts" in French), which took place in France in the early 20th century and whose best-known artist is Matisse. They got their start as teenagers in the isolated Kendal area of England (some members of British Sea Power are from the same area) before landing a contract with Domino after their first single, the dancy “Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants,” was an indie hit in the land of fish and chips.
In the lead up to the release of Limbo, Panto, Wild Beasts claimed in interviews that they had no direct musical influences. That point is hard to dispute. Lead singer Hayden Thorpe is the band’s most distinct calling card; his voice is like no one else’s. It raises from an Antony-like fragile falsetto to a throaty, three-packs a day, scratchy croon to a huge, stage-ready shout, sometimes within a single line of his stream of consciousness lyrics.
“The Club of Fathomless Love” is Thorpe’s show-stopping moment. He holds court over the glitzy track like an old soul singer shouting out the song with clenched fists and closed eyes. “The Old Dog” is Wild Beasts as a ’60s casino lounge act, but instead of reminding you about the buffet and tipping your waitress, Thorpe sings about “causal sex with a hard-up thug.” Even bassist Tom Fleming, who handles the verses on album standout “The Devil’s Crayon,” has a distinct voice. His enormous, wistful tenor grounds the song in a tender emotionality.
Musically, the band is just as all over the place. The musicians seem less concerned with making tight grooves and powerful riffs than with making music that is as off-kilter as Thorpe’s vocals. The guitars bounce around like bugs near a light, the drums are rhythmically amorphous, and the bass lines are loose and gangly. The guitars on “Crayon” are used as a way to beef up the percussive rim clicks that provide the track it’s rhythmic undertow; “Please, Sir” is all negative space except for the reverb-laden, plucked guitars that are on the lowest volume setting; and “She Purred, While I Grrred” is the album’s lone song with a seminormal set-up. The verses have a shuffling, simple pattern, but in the choruses, feedback and clarion bell guitar riffs split the song open.
In a time when most of indie rock can be described in a reductive formula (random post-punk band from the late 1970s crossed with a new-wave band from the 1980s, or Brit-pop band from the ‘90s), Wild Beasts stand apart of musical traditions. They owe nothing to a far-gone musical moment, nor can they be pigeonholed. Limbo, Panto may be one of 2008’s most startlingly great debuts.