[Cover artwork: Mundus Subterraneus, an engraving by Athanasius Kircher from 1664 redefined by graphic artist Thomas Kaldhold]
Not sure you’ve noticed, but the Nordic countries are quite powerful when it comes to progressive music.
Oh, of course you’ve observed this, Mr. and Mrs. Heavy Metal Fan. You’ve spent decades absorbing everything from Ved Buens Ende to Virus to Carbonized to Lost Horizon to Solefad to Meshuggah to Opeth to Madder Mortem to countless others, so this is hardly news to you. But hopefully that progressive bug has bitten you well and good enough to warrant jumps into other offshoots as well—branches where Nordic countries are equally adventurous and interesting: jazz that bends the rules more than it’s normally bent (Samuel Hällkvist‘s work, for example, whose latest features Meshuggah bassist Dick Lövgren), experimental electronic music that challenges what your stodgy piano teacher considers “classical” (Valgeir Sigurðsson, for instance), and a colossal roster of plucky progressive rock initiatives as long as God’s arm that set their sights forward and backward with equal ambition.
Wobbler, a five-piece progressive rock HORDE formed on an idyllic Norwegian countryside back in 1999, clearly looks to the past for a major part of their inspiration. More specifically, the sort of adventurous, drawn-out, quixotic eccentricity that kicked around the skulls of hair-farmers and hopheads circa 1970-’75 that’s long since fallen out of favor with the public at large roaming the modern age. Play Wobbler’s music for a child right at this very moment and said child would likely have zero point of reference, perhaps opting to label it as something fanciful lords and ladies of yore might listen to while eating tiny sandwiches in a garden and watching little froggy lords with tiny top hats and canes waltz and shuffle with little froggy ladies that have their hair piled high. Strangely enough, that child would be pretty much right on the mark. Wobbler’s music is every bit tailor-made for the prog nerd as it is for creatures who might ostensibly build a home in a large, dappled mushroom next to a mystical marsh that only comes into view when the moon is in a notably great mood.
If you played Wobbler for a delegate 30-something who happens to have their thumb on the pulse of what’s hip, said 30-something might possibly have close to zero point of reference, perhaps opting to label the music as an artifact their dad might’ve cranked a hundred years ago while rolling doobies atop gatefolds (and long before crippling mortgages and relentless team-building meetings eventually sucked the life out of said dad and their scalp.) However, at least this 30-something could ostensibly acknowledge a detached familiarity with one of Wobbler’s influences: Yes. And yes, that would be the band Yes. YES, GODDAMNIT, Yes. It’s also possible that Wobbler has grown weary of having phrases akin to “They sound like a modern day Yes” thrown in their faces, but it’s at least an understandable benchmark, particularly the variety of Yes that produced one of progressive rock’s greatest records: 1972’s Close to the Edge. Similar to that release, Dwellers of the Deep (and essentially the full breadth of Wobbler’s five full-lengths) favors a design that’s unafraid of bending the traditional verse-chorus option over the railing in favor of meandering through ensorcelled forests and down seemingly infinite pathways that generate centerpiece songs that stretch well into double-digits and feature heavy use of keys and a notably authoritative bass thump. That is (or was) the case for a great many progressive rock acts from the early 70s as well, so go ahead and throw the likes of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Gentle Giant, Van Der Graaf Generator, and an army of others alongside Yes into Wobbler’s stewpot.
The bottom line is this: these guys dig yon olden ways (with a very plumy, dramatically serifed font), and they enjoy upping the eccentricity ante by renewing instruments that have long since become dearly departed from mainstream rock: glockenspiel, crumhorn and Mellotron, just to name a few. They have a different sort of way of incorporating elder climates and components into a record like Dwellers of the Deep, though, and that becomes more and more clear with repeated spins. First and foremost, production in the modern age gives Wobbler one hell of an advantage—everything on Dwellers of the Deep is perfectly balanced and sounds as full, lush, and unlimited as a secret wilderness. All the players are given ample room to ramble, and each individual brings a level of panache that could pack a suitcase, but great hornytoads does keyboardist Lars Fredrik Frøislie and bassist Kristian Hultgren ever come loaded for bear in 2020. The latter’s absurdly thick bass tone could dozer Harley Flanagan’s on Best Wishes, and it’s fairly clear that Frøislie has a collection of vintage keyboards / pianos / synthesizers large enough that he’s had to remove all the furniture from his house to accommodate it. News of their underscored presence likely is no surprise to anyone who’s been a fan of the band for multiple albums, but Dwellers of the Deep increases their impact to the nth degree, and the rich production duly underlines their presence.
- Takes less than a minute before a Hammond solo hits your face.
- The music is already lifting you into the sky around 1:15, but that wonderful bass still lends a serious heaviness to the mood.
- Song starts meandering into a playful and magickal (yes, with a ‘k’) realm.
- Hammond and harpsichord(?) dance, and Prestmo’s perfectly layered voice makes it near impossible to do anything but pay attention to a story that concerns dragons, keeps, and all sorts of other fantastical shit everyone loves.
- 4:45—a rather dramatic surge ushers in the first quiet part where light piano tinkles (YES, TINKLES) and flute dapples the corners.
- Bass and drums waltz back in, but it’s still mellow. Prestmo’s voice is wonderful.
- 6:50—things suddenly sound a little…sneaky, and then BOOM: That big, struttin’ bass and the guitars, drums and everything else jump back into the rumble. Little playful bits of moog and synths frolic on the edges.
- 9:00—it feels like medieval feast music with a fucking laser show . By 9:30 it’s suddenly quiet again. Piano and sloooow bass and soft vocals sing of Persephone and dusk and dawn and kisses.
- 11:40—a doomy Forest of Equilibrium flute joins in the funereal march, and then BAM: At 12:05 it’s a bloody medieval mosh party. The jester is flapping around like loon, the king is face-down in his own mess, and the queen is cooly watching it all unfold while drinking a martini from a stein the size of her head.
- Ends on a totally triumphant note where everyone frigging wins.
Yes, yes, yes, of course an actual song will do more than any silly words I manage to conjure. “Five Rooms” accomplishes similar feats as the opener, but it does so in a little less than 10 minutes, and with perhaps a touch more merriment and force. The way the song closes is magnificently epic, too—a stunning sense of grandeur that’s similar to how “Black Horseman” brings Abigail to a close, but through a knotty Gentle Giant lens instead of King’s macabre horror.
Only two other songs remain, yet they still manage to deliver about 25 minutes of material. “Naiad Dreams” [4:24] is a beautiful and delicate little acoustic number that offers a welcomed reprieve from all the hustle & bustle that occurs prior, and it showcases just how wonderful Andreas Prestmo is as a vocalist. Naiads dance and dart, and one can easily picture will-o’-the-wisps flitting about the soft notes as the song gradually takes a spookier turn that lures the traveler further and deeper into the shadowy wilds. With the closing “Merry Macabre” [19:00], the gloves are totally off. The song speaks of Dionysus, and as such it packs all the darkness, wildness and psychedelia you’d expect upon witnessing an intoxicating ritual intended to provoke a return to a more primeval state. Guitars are featured more prominently here compared to the rest of the record, but with a full 19 minutes to live, the band displays zero reservations about making sure every trick in the Wobbler book gets a turn under the spotlight. By the time the closing moments finally tick away in a final burst of progressive fire, the listener is left thunderstruck and ready to completely shed their restrictive clothes in favor of galloping to the nearest hinterland as naked as the day they were born; a perfect way to close such a madly wild, fun and radical record.
Fiercely adventurous progressive rock such as this obviously ain’t built for everyone, but it can be an absolute lifeline for those who enjoy acts that reach back in order to hurtle forward and very far away from the horrors of the modern day. In a similar way that projects such as Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, ELP, and a great many others ferried listeners to new dimensions five decades ago (!!!) using music that scorned and defied traditional directives, bands like Wobbler find new ways to further that flight today. Dwellers of the Deep is a magnificent record that should sprint to the top of the list for any and all broad-minded explorers who like it freaky-deaky and extra wobbly.