I will lay my cards straight down on the table, no bluffing, but I’m a fan of Wozniak.
Over the last few years they have released a series of stunning singles and E.P.s and played some brilliant gigs. So, to say I’ve been looking forward to the release of their debut album for some time is something of an understatement. However, many bands have released fantastic records only to stumble when producing a cohesive first album that lives up to expectations so, obviously, there is always an element of apprehension involved in these things as well as great expectations.
On the first couple of plays of Courage Reels I wasn’t totally convinced that Wozniak had quite pulled off this feat. However, it has kept pulling me back and from worming its way in to my affections has become something of a cherished love affair. I’ve constantly played it at home and on my travels and it seems to reveal more and more of its unique world each time I play it.
The title is taken from a Scottish Country Dance which, from a quick look online, seems fiendishly complicated and, ultimately, possibly not that much fun. Which is a cul-de-sac that a lot of predominantly instrumental groups have fallen into. Technically it may be interesting but as something you would really want to welcome into your ears it was big turn-off. Wozniak have consistently avoided this, both previously and on Courage Reels by making music that is beautiful, engulfing and human.
‘Shader’ opens proceedings up. Initially it has a slow burning effect, the sounded gently building up, searing then lifting the pace. Full of fiery distortion, ringing guitars and a pulsing rhythm it is a wonderful start to, full of subtle shifts and shades of pace and tone.
‘Ghosting’ starts of at a gentler pace. Initially it feels very autumnal, funereal even then shifts into contrasting shades of light and dark. Towards the end, the vocals come in, low in the mix but integral to the song and ‘Shader’ bursts into a firework display of fiery noise.
‘Super Panther’ is a brooding, taut creature of a song. Simple guitar motifs meet with thunderous bass and drums, building up and pouncing into life. As with the other songs on Courage Reels, ‘Panther’ has a real ebb and flow to it. Not the old quiet-loud-quiet of lesser bands but shifts in the layers of sound, in the intensity of the sound and the little things happening that surprise the ears. It has a sense of movement, of action, of vitality.
In some ways Wozniak make me feel the rush of some early techno. Not in the instrumentation but in the way the constituent parts work together to produce an intensity of sound and atmosphere combined with melody and hooks. However, I digress a little here.
Perihelion is apparently the point where an asteroid or planet is closest to the sun in its orbit. That, is the technical term as per the dictionary. Here it is a lovely song with a beautiful vocal that opens up the sound of Courage Reels further. Epic is a pretty overused word but ‘Perihelion’ is genuinely epic. It is also very gorgeous. The melodies really beguile and the overall sound and atmosphere draws me in completely to its orbit before pitching me Icarus like right into the sun as it drifts off to a dreamy climax.
Acting as a counterpoint to having seemingly been flung into the sun to have your wings melt and fail you, ‘Scottish Dancer’ is where you wake up alive in the warm glow of a new morning. With a sonorous, delicate introduction giving way to lead guitar and drums it feels gorgeous, like an Indian Summer. It reminds me of the evocative, expansive, intricate guitar playing of Maurice Deebank in Felt. With a more recognisable verse-chorus structure and is probably my favourite track on the album. A standout track on an album of standout tracks. During the verses the drums are minimal and starkly effective. The second half of the song shifts onto instrumental territory with a gradual build-up and swathes of guitars. At over eight minutes it never drags nor does a single second feel superfluous.
‘Natsuko’ is the shortest song on the album, clocking in at under four minutes. Full of simple but effective refrains tugged along by an insistent, punchy bassline and drums it feels airier and sunnier but no less wonderful.
If Wozniak bring sunshine and light, the next two songs are darker. ‘Erebus’ ebbs and flows, from the low, deep bass intro to a darker, noisier sonic palette then settles into a gentler groove as it moves to the end. ‘Crush’ has a harsher edge to it. The sound is Gothic and haunted with a spikey, angular almost cold feel to it. The fuzz bass and bruising rhythms compete with jagged guitars and a haunted vocal as Wozniak leave the sun and take us into a new ice age on a dead planet or aphelion, the opposite of ‘Perihelion’ with its warm but destructive glow.
‘Death Suit’ begins with a gentle, spry step and progresses into flowing movements with sweet interplay between the instruments. It feels like a suite of interlinked passages as it shifts in tone and feel over almost eight minutes. For the most part ‘Death Suit’ is a reflective, sweet finish to an intense listening experience but no less moving or immersive for that. However, the last two minutes become more fluid and frenetic as it pushes to the end.
And that is Courage Reels. A very fine, wonderful record that pushes this Edinburgh based quartet on into the musical heavens. A wonderful, luscious record that can be dreamlike and nightmarish but always remains compelling and seductive. This album should be the soundtrack to your lives.