Ever-changing and always challenging, London’s Wolfgang Press is one of the most enigmatic groups on a generally enigmatic label. Probably better-known for their stylish Alberto Ricci record covers than their music, the trio comprises Michael Allen (vocals/bass) and Mark Cox (keyboards) — both of whom had been in Rema Rema with Adam Ant collaborator Marco Pirroni before transmuting into a pre-Press quartet called Mass which released a 1980 single on 4AD — and Andrew Gray (drums).
The Burden of Mules is dark and cacophonous, an angry, intense slab of post-punk gloom that is best left to its own (de)vices. Scarecrow, however, makes the most of the band’s better attributes with spotless production by Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie. Allen’s almost-spoken, heavily accented vocals sputter through a mix of up-front bass, rhythm guitar, synthesizers and creative percussion. Some dreary moments remain, but a send-up of Otis Redding’s “Respect” reflects the lightened mood.
Water continues the band’s evolution, but in a totally different direction. Over minimalist backing, Allen’s vocals turn baladeerish: Frank Sinatra sifted through Joy Division. A track called “My Way” is curiously reminiscent of Burt Bacharach.
Continuing to work with Guthrie, the Wolfgang Press sounds fully mature and more musically adept than ever on Sweatbox. The EP strengthens and confirms their fundamental approach: the deconstruction and reconstruction of pop conventions in their own image. Put through the Wolfgang Press breakdown process, Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” becomes “Heart of Stone,” in effect creating an original. Sweatbox also establishes the group’s mastery of moving instrumentals. The Legendary Wolfgang Press compiles the three EPs onto one disc, with some songs remixed and/or edited from their original form.
Musically, Standing Up Straight is as challenging and inventive as the band’s other work, adding industrial and classical instrumentation to the creative arsenal. “Dig a Hole,” “Hammer the Halo” and “Rotten Fodder” are the best the Wolfgang Press has to offer — dark and thoroughly uncompromising — on a record which is not for the easily intimidated. Also of interest is the enclosed lyric sheet, a multi-fold affair in which lyrics are presented as artistic design elements.
The Wolfgang Press continue to astound and delight on the Big Sex EP, four tracks that clearly demonstrate just what it is that makes this band so special. “The Wedding” is weighty and primal; “The Great Leveller” is desperate, insistent and the closest the Press will likely come to a real pop tune. The oppressive “That Heat” has wonderful blasts of distorted guitar throughout; “God’s Number” is virtually all drums, with the novelty of female soul backing vocals. Daring music for daring times.
Bird Wood Cage continues a habit of inserting fascinating bits of business into superficially forbidding songs. Allen’s highly strung dramatic vocals (a gruffer Nick Cave, perhaps) and the measured tracks’ plodding, trancey construction may discourage easy access to the Wolfgang Press’ world, but the band’s thickly laid atmosphere envelops all sorts of effective ingredients: female backing vocals on “King of Soul,” wah-wah guitar on “Kansas,” dub reggae effects on “Hang on Me (For Papa).” Making the most of understatement, the Wolfgang Press fills Bird Wood Cage with intrigue.
Mixing up geo-political concerns on the Cyrillic-titled Kansas EP, the Wolfgang Press begins “Assassination K./Kanserous” with a banjo picking out “Yellow Rose of Texas” and then proceeds into a pastiche of spoken-word tapes about JFK before opening into a remix of the Talking Headsy track (from Bird Wood Cage) for which it’s named. The EP’s two other songs pursue a more muscular sound than usual; “Twister” takes its cues from Suicide.
Queer‘s cover of Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come” upholds the band’s penchant for remaking other people’s songs in its own mold, while “Louis XIV” takes a remarkably arcane topic — in this case, France’s famous Sun King — and works it into a sinuous rhythm track with a few sprightly samples underneath Allen’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Bassist Leslie Langston (Throwing Muses) plays on nearly every track; as the three bandmembers perform several different instrumental tasks on each song, the sound is appreciably fuller than usual. Although the Wolfgang Press appears to be stretching its style, the scattered songs don’t hang together as well as on previous releases. (Initial copies of the British vinyl issue, which contains a minorly different set of tracks than the US CD, came with a bonus 12-inch of remixes.)
On Funky Little Demons, the Wolfgang Press finally realized they had been trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and sought to make straight-ahead dance music with the correct materials. Unfortunately, songs that sound properly formed and constructed are much less interesting. No longer enigmatic risk-takers, the Wolfgang Press have become just another white post-new wave soul band.