Band: Wobbler | Album: Dwellers of the Deep | Genre: Progressive rock | Year: 2020
From: Oslo, Norway | Label: Karisma Records
For fans of: Yes
Wobbler are indisputably one of the top dogs of the modern progressive rock scene, and I quite like them. However, I view them as one of the most overrated acts out there. They’re certainly not bad, not by a wide margin. Nevertheless, From Silence to Somewhere (their 2017 release) is ranked 28th all-time on Prog Archive’s list of the top prog albums, which is ridiculous. It’s a very good record which cracked my personal Top 10 that year, but it certainly ain’t the 28th-best prog album of all time. At time of writing, Dwellers of the Deep ranks 52nd on that same list, and that’s even more egregious. (That list, aggregated off user reviews, has all kinds of other odd inclusions and exclusions, and I’ve got my own gripes about that site’s users’ biases.)
I also find the progosphere’s eager deference to this band off-putting, and I’ve witnessed an awful lot of hand-waving at just how Yes-y they’ve become over their last few albums. Their Yes-iness isn’t an inherently bad thing. Rites at Dawn is my favorite of their records, and that is arguably their most blatantly Yes-like release. But after a while, such obvious aping of another act’s sound does begin to wear thin, and Yes varied their sound more than Wobbler have. To reiterate: I like Wobbler, but I don’t view them through the same irreproachable lens that many other prog fans seem to hold.
Now that I’ve gotten my expository rant out of the way, I can address the album at hand. Dwellers of the Deep is this Norwegian quintet’s fifth full-length release. Upon first listening to it, I was struck by the fact that I could identify no appreciable differences between this album and From Silence to Somewhere. The sound palette hasn’t been shaken up, the albums’ structures are similar, and the melodies feel too familiar—bordering on re-trod. However, the strength of Wobbler’s baseline sound is such that even with these considerations in mind, Dwellers of the Deep is still a pretty good record. Not amazing, but pretty good and worth listening to.
“By the Banks” opens the album on a bombastic note, and Wobbler’s bombast has always been their strongest mode in my book. The organ playing is more reminiscent of John Evan of Jethro Tull than of anyone Yes ever had, which is a nice change of pace, but the verses are weak. The melody feels forced and unnatural, and the instrumental backing lacks any real muscle. Much of the middle of this 14-minute song is instrumental, and it’s something of a mixed bag. Good ideas are mixed in alongside themes and riffs which should have either been refined or cut altogether.
Following this is Dwellers’ pre-release single, “Five Rooms”. It opens with warm organ, Mellotron, and wordless vocals before gradually building toward another frenetic riff that sounds like it was written by Chris Squire. This song, similar to the first, is a mix of strong ideas and half-baked melodies that ultimately fail to land. The song’s closing minutes strongly channel Phideaux, but that’s not quite enough to save it for me. These first two songs feel somewhat scattered and unfocused.
“Naiad Dreams” is an insufferable, torpid four-and-a-half-minute acoustic dirge. I hate it. This might be Wobbler’s worst song. It drips along slowly, seemingly never-ending, with almost nothing in the way of instrumental variation. I tried to couch my criticism of the first two songs by pointing out that each have good ideas, but this one is a waste.
Up to this point, Dwellers has felt like something of a disappointment. Two mixed bags and one snoozefest do not a strong release make. Thankfully, the 19-minute “Merry Macabre” ends this record on a strong note.
After a brief piano intro, distorted organ launches this song into an aggressive, askew riff which feels fresh. This eventually dissolves into ominous walls of organ and wordless vocals. This foreboding atmosphere continues for a while before transitioning into a rapid, twisting guitar line. Jazz and blues elements pop up in the rhythm and organ line. A jangly guitar line acts as the backdrop to gradually escalating keyboards and percussion, both of which inject impressive drama. There are a million ideas in this song, but it somehow holds together. This might be Wobbler’s best individual song of their career.
Wobbler’s fifth album is somewhat patchy, featuring both extreme highs and extreme lows. “Merry Macabre” is what elevates Dwellers of the Deep from decent-but-skippable to something worth checking out. I doubt I’ll be listening to the first three songs on this album with much frequency, but I can foresee myself revisiting this closing suite quite often.