If you’ve got any serious-minded musician friends on Facebook, you may have seen a few or all of them post it: a meme attempting to explain, very tidily, The Problem With Music Today.
It’s a photo of Led Zeppelin, with the first verse from their song “Thank You” running alongside. In the verse, a sun refuses to shine, mountains crumble into the sea, but true love cuts through it all.
Next to that, a photo of Nicki Minaj and the lyrics to the chorus of her new song “Stupid Hoe,” which sees “Yous a stupid hoe” repeated ad nauseum.
Get it? Music used to be spun from Pure Plantonian Poetry. Now, it’s made by stupid hoes for stupid hoes and pushed hard by an industry who cherish profit over art and cater to the lowest common denominator.
How far we’ve fallen as a human race.
But there’s another side of the story, one best explained by World United Lucifer Youth Foundation (WU LYF), a Manchester, England, four-piece who make soaring, self-described “heavy pop” that’s made from one thunderous crescendo after another, a powerful formula of build, build, build, that’s so rapturous it could raise those mountains back up again and turn the sun back on.
Their argument, it seems, is that lyrics just don’t matter, so long as they’re visceral, that you can be touched by their force, even when they lack clarity. This is summed up succinctly on their song “Spitting Blood,” which goes like this: “SPITTIN BLUH! SPITTIN BLUH! WHOSE SU GUH! WHOSE SU GUH!”
Or, from their hit “We Bros”: “SHE SAY SUH, SAIL YOU MUH MEH!”
Or on “Such a Sad Puppy Dog,” where they wrap up the case thusly: “MAH FAVAH SEH, FIE FAVAH SEH, SUUUUU, SU SAY SIN!”
“I think we always came to the lyrics from the angle that the music literally came first,” says WU bassist Tom McClung from his flat in Manchester. “The music was created first and the vocals were something that went over the top of it. We just sort of screamed whatever we felt, and it ended up giving it this exasperated sort of sound. The lyrics became a secondary thing for it because the emotion was already out there.”
The emotion. It looms large in WU LYF’s music, injected into every bloated, yelled chorus and every ever-building mush-mouthed verse. It’s something fans of the band have latched onto, and a theme has emerged on the countless comments on WU’s numerous YouTube videos: “You can’t understand them, but so what? You can feeeeel them, mannn!”
The music underneath is all swells of echo-y guitar and billowing pipe organ, big, big, BIG drum crashes and, of course, that fierce, gasoline-swilling vocal bark atop it all. That you can’t make out most of WU’s lyrics makes sense. Since they formed in ’08, the band’s been shrouded in mystery. There are more rumors about them than are worth keeping up with, but the main ones are 1) Director Michel Gondry, so moved by WU’s music, cold-called them to direct a video. They declined. 2) They charged hungry/desperate A&R reps from major labels 50 pounds for their demo. 3) They turned down several Big Deal major label offers for their debut, and released it themselves. 4) In the beginning, they turned down interview requests in the U.K. with a gracious “Fuck off.”
Their lore firmly in place before they’d even had an album out, WU LYF became a mystery the entire U.K. press wanted to solve.
“When we started, we didn’t really understand the industry that much,” says McClung. “We didn’t understand how the word got around about these so-called secret deals and offers and stuff. And the interviews—at the time we just thought it was kind of ridiculous, because we didn’t have enough material that we believed in yet. There was nothing to talk about. And we didn’t feel like compromising anything yet, just for what seemed to be an offer of money. After that, everyone said we were on, like, some crazy policy to turn everyone down just as a statement. It was really interesting to see how much media is just fed by rumor. It’s all fueled by Chinese whispers.”
One of the whispers that turned out to be true, even though it sounded like a cheap PR stunt: their debut Go Tell Fire On the Mountain was recorded in an abandoned church, and if you didn’t know that, you could probably pick it up after a couple listens. There’s a grandeur there that sounds as big as Heaven itself. The band produced the album themselves, but McClung thinks you could make the case that the church played the role of producer as well.
“I think a good producer makes a psychologically interesting environment,” says McClung. “And the church, if you think of it as a person, he made it really cold, he made it really reverberant, he made it really easy for you to lose your notes, and he didn’t really let us play in it for very long. We literally had only three weeks to record. I think it affected it in a way. We ended up playing simpler, playing in high-energy short bursts.”
And then there are those secondary vocals, of course. WU LYF’s whippet-thin, Tom Waits-inspired gravel pit of a lead singer, Ellery Roberts, never met a word he didn’t like to mumble menacingly, and you could listen to Go Tell Fire a dozen times or more and still not know what in God’s name he was going on about. Listen closely, and you can make out about 20 words on the whole thing, and half of those just from context clues provided by song titles. But you can feel them all, and most are about brotherhood, unity, unbreakable bonds and endless love. Which makes sense too, when you consider this is just four young “bros” from Manchester playing music. Ironically, the success of Go Tell Fire nearly changed that.