The Wheel Workers, Past to Present
With Past to Present, The Wheel Workers attempt a truly delicate balancing act, one that’s impressive to witness. See, the album takes a big, big risk, in that it’s essentially two things at the same time: a pitch-perfect orchestral pop-rock album and a strident, intensely political call to arms. There are bands that can do those things, to be sure, but very few can do both at the same time and succeed.
And yet, against the odds, The Wheel Workers pull it off. They’ve managed to craft a dozen tracks that are thoughtful, warm, friendly, melodic, and addictive as all hell (it’s seriously impossible to not sing along to “Chemicals,” for one)…and are married to singer/guitarist Steven Higginbotham’s often-cautionary, sometimes-grim, activism-minded lyrics.
Hell, if you were to only read the lyrics without listening to the music, you could be excused for thinking the band was some brooding, Apocalypse-minded gang of heavily-bearded metal dudes. I mean, seriously: “Releasing hold / of the victim’s mind / taking back control / from hope or chance”? Or this one: “So we burn it all away / or we leave you irradiated / Suck it dry and lay to waste / a landscape of desolation.” I’m pretty sure that’s part of a Megadeth song, right there…
But as with bitter medicine, Higginbotham and his crew — singer/keyboardist/thereminist(?) Allison Wilkins McPhail, guitarist/keyboardist Craig Wilkins, bassist Jason Williams, and drummer Jason Carmona — slyly wrap the political message in heavily-layered, meticulously crafted music that brings to mind both the thinking-man’s rock of Radiohead (and, by extension, Radiohead-ites Muse and Athlete) and the lush, pretty-yet-somber melodicism of Aimee Mann.
I’ll admit that I was a little thrown off by The Wheel Workers first effort, 2011’s Unite, in part because it felt like it suffered from kitchen-sink syndrome, trying to do too many things at once. This time out, however, the band’s focused down their sound amazingly well, tying everything together so that even when they do skip from sound to sound — going from the jaunty pop of “Chemicals” to the frantic rock of “Starve the Beast,” for example — it all feels like the same band.
More than anything else, what Past to Present makes me think of is Aussie band Midnight Oil, in that both bands manage to play songs that are overtly political and deadly serious but also still work as ridiculously catchy pop songs.
Look at “Past to Present,” for one, where the band jumps into a bumping groove punctuated by occasional jagged, crunchy-sounding keys (which grab hold of what might otherwise be a too-precious song and make it just a little bit dangerous) and more introspective jangle-pop passages. Beneath the guitars and pianos, Higginbotham’s lyrics are surprisingly dark, pointing to a complacent other person who never bothered to stop and question when things were going well.
Or take “Rainbows,” which is on its surface a bright, epic-sounding, arena-sized rock tune but is actually a (thinly-veiled, now that I’m looking a little closer) declaration that everybody should be able to marry whoever they love, regardless of gender. Or the impassioned, bouncy “Chemicals,” which is one the cheeriest-yet-bleakest pop songs you’re likely to ever hear, with Higginbotham smiling sweetly (sarcastically?) as he croons, “Chemicals / chemicals / fall softly in the rain / and I cannot find words to ease the pain.” It’s earnest and sweet and absolutely awesome.
Despite the seriousness lurking in the words, however, The Wheel Workers never let things drag down into bitterness. Rather, they dash along with a cheeky grin, pointing these things out as they go and never losing a sense that maybe things can change.
One of the high points of the album is “Starve the Beast,” which starts off desperate and worried but becomes steadily more defiant, ending with a rallying cry: “Let’s get together / and occupy the world over.” Sounds like a good plan to me.
(Feature photo by Mark C. Austin.)