Sunday, June 23, 2024

Walt Disco Go For the Feelings in Ambitious Second Album ‘The Warping’

Much has been written about the challenged posed by releasing a sophomore album, especially on the heels of a successful debut – and even more so a successful debut with a strong personality and clear-cut intentions such as Glasgow’s Walt Disco achieved in 2022 with ‘Unlearning’

The obvious temptation would be to stick to a newly-found comfort zone and stay in the box the first album with, replicating the quirks and touches that made it successful. It is, however, a temptation worth resisting: what was innovative to start with can easily become stale if repeated over and over again, and experimentation only works for those who avoid re-treading the same ground. On the other hand, a band that came out, even from their very first public outings, which such a distinct and remarkable voice would be understandably concerned with preserving the very well-defined identity they have built for themselves. 

Enter ‘The Warping’, the five-piece’s recently released second album, which is very much the product of those two contrasting urges. It is a brave record, especially as far as its emotional component is concerned: even more than in their debut, the band delved into themes of identity and feelings, self-acceptance, transformation, and finding one’s place in the world. It is, also, a record that does not turn its back on its predecessor, but still finds new directions to explore: there is, for instance, a much greater confidence in working within the stripped-down framework of slow, ballad-like, quieter tracks, showcasing the distinctive, expressive vocals that are one of the band’s trademarks. There are a couple songs that are full-on experimental, and a few that look back at the first album’s sound and ramp it up, leaning into the glam rock of it all.

It is, perhaps most of all, an ambitious record: one that is trying to do many things at once, and is trying with full earnestness and a lot of heart. There has always been a distinct emotional appeal to the work of this band, and the ability to channel feeling through delicately evocative lyrics and full-bodied, atmospheric sound has only grown, as exemplified by singles like ‘Pearl’ or the touchingly personal ‘Jocelyn’, both easily among the stand-out tracks in this record. Other tracks feel like a show of compositional prowess, complex and multi-layered as they are, like the powerful ‘Come Undone’, where co-writer Jessica Winter’s contribution makes for an interesting disco spin on the ever recognisable Walt Disco voice; or like ‘You Make Me Feel So Dumb’, perhaps the most successful track in the album overall in the way that it strikes a balance of energy, humour, and sincerity. The art-rock influences which have always been with the band are still there, although the glam element is prevailing over the New Wave one now; the more vocal-centric songs have a touch of David Bowie to them, and there’s an echo of T. Rex in the guitars. The unrepentant quirkiness which made Walt Disco’s early works so intriguing is also still present, which is in a sense reassuring: yet another risk of the second record is the temptation to dial down the more out-there elements, and settle into something less threatening. ‘The Warping’ steers clear away of this risk: the record’s very title promises oddity and altered perception, and the promise is very much kept.

Perhaps the biggest difference between this record and its predecessor lies in each work’s feeling as a whole. ‘Unlearning’ came across as a finely woven tapestry, very much a single mechanism made of many moving parts. With ‘The Warping’, even after several listenings, the lingering feeling is that of an anthology. It is an album through which the band is trying to do several things, and to explore several avenues: the directions in which these lead are sometimes so disparate that it is simply not possible to identify a single fil rouge neatly tying the album together as a whole. 

Lovers of the concept album might balk, but this is far more perk than flaw: if nothing else, it is a refreshing show of versatility, proving that Walt Disco are absolutely not a one-hit wonder. It is, in fact, impressive to see so much range in a band with such a well-defined identity. Title-track ‘The Warping’ indulges the band’s love of all things retro; softly emotional ‘Weeping Willow’ is deeply experimental in such a confident way that you only realise all its complexities after hearing it a few times. ‘Gnomes’ is both intimate and theatrical, which perhaps is just Walt Disco in a nutshell. Closing track ‘Before The Walls’ is the only one that feels like it may have been on the first album, and is a neat way of tying all things together as a parting gift.

All in all, ‘The Warping’ feels like a tale of ambition rewarded. It is less cohesive than the debut it follows, but it didn’t really need to be: the main feeling that lingers after the record is over is one of endless possibilities. Of the many challenges confronting a sophomore album, one of the most daunting is the need to prove that there is an artistic path still open; that there are still things left to say. Walt Disco have so many directions now open that it is not surprising to find them hesitating to choose one. Perhaps choosing them all is really the right answer.

Chiara Strazzulla


Image: ‘The Warping’ official album cover

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