It’s hard to pin down Wood Lake’s sound. The Ottawa band has managed to craft something that’s schizophrenic, yet seamless, blending elements of emo, shoegaze, grunge, baroque pop, electronica, and black metal. On their second album, Hell, we find them at their experimental best. They jump from one genre to another, often in the middle of a single song, and they pull through with an outstanding record that has something for everyone.
I’ll admit that when I first put the album on, I thought that Wood Lake would be just another emo band. And the first bit of the album opener “Oceans” really does give that impression. But the song eventually opens up into something much more complex and rewarding. It’s like opening a nice bottle of red: the first sip is simple, but give it time, and its real flavours will start to shine through. “Oceans” may start out all emo punk, but it ends as a gorgeous shoegaze experiment, with guitars and violins singing over wave sounds.
Just when you’ve managed to wrap your head around that stunning transformation, “Still Life Collage” kicks in with a piano opening inspired by the Beatles. It continues on with what sounds like a heavily distorted guitar playing distantly in the mix behind ear-catching pop hooks. Then the whole thing erupts into an almost operatic finish. After all this, the band launches into the shoegaze-grunge of “Head in the Sand.” It’s a lot of different music to take in over such a short period of time, and it’s the result of a band who have an abundance of ideas.
After the first few songs you just accept that this is not a straightforward album. The band pride themselves on not being restricted to one genre or style, and they emphasize their musical freedom with their transitions and mid-song juxtapositions. In that way, they’re thoroughly modern. They’re just as capable of cloaking a pop song in distortion (“Madeline”) as they are at crafting ambient electro-pop ballads (“Easy Love”). But despite their genre hopping, it all works. Not one of these songs is a forced attempt at doing something different. They all just sound like Wood Lake exploring another thing they can do.
“Barrhaven” is probably the most outwardly experimental song on the album. It changes instantly from a light, breezy pop song into a black metal nightmare. The band brings the emo back with “Sam McGee,” this time with 80s synth lines. But it’s on the single “Hollow” that the band truly reveals their love for making beautiful music, even though they cover it in volume and aggression. It’s what keeps their music accessible: these are beautifully written songs, with beautiful parts, and the band never lets their experimentation get in the way of that.
They wrap things up with “Comfort You (Goodbye),” which is the kind of song to end a show with. It’s a grunge song to dance to, emphasizing one last time that there is something for everyone on Hell. Throughout these nine songs, Wood Lake push themselves to try anything that they think will sound entertaining, regardless of any rules or labels. They look all over the place for inspiration, from the classic pop of the Beatles, to overdriven grunge and murky shoegaze. And they blend it all together into a stunning triumph of an album.