Merge · July 31, 2020
Wye Oak has had no problem diversifying their sound in the past, but the No Horizon EP takes an even more unexpected – and gratifying – direction. The entire EP was recorded in collaboration with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and this partnership gives the project a distinctive sound. The EP drifts between different moods and makes use of more digitized sounds right alongside the raw vocals from both the Youth Chorus and Jenn Wasner of the Wye Oak duo. Minor tweaks in song structure could have helped to highlight each song’s strengths, but the overall EP is a refreshing and creative venture.
Almost immediately, No Horizon takes on an unanticipated sound. The first track of the album, “AEIOU,” includes the Brooklyn Youth Chorus chanting “A, E, I, O, U” in the background along with subtle vocals that are chopped up to the point of sounding percussive. However, the song quickly takes on a warmer feeling as an array of beautiful vocal harmonies are layered on. A slow, reverb-heavy guitar lick then adds to the warm atmosphere. The notes in this guitar part bleed into one another, as if each one is oversaturated with emotion. The same sense of care is given to Wasner’s tender vocals. Setting a trend for the rest of the EP, her voice arcs between soft and powerful, fitting for the lyrics. Wasner sings, “If you speak my name / Use my real name / The one I gave myself / A word can suggest my likeness / As a painting / Suggests distance.” Finally, the occasional rumble of drums and piano hints at Wye Oak’s more familiar sound. As the first track of the EP, however, “AEIOU” is a clear indication of the inventiveness that follows.
Interplay between Wasner’s vocals and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus vocals appears several times throughout the EP. In “No Place,” a call-and-response format is used with sung vocals versus a more heavily enunciated, spoken-word sound. This format helps to emphasize the striking, seemingly absurdist lyrics. Wasner and the chorus sing, “We live in a place / That is no place” and “When we are hungry / We eat our ideas.” Contrarily, in “Spitting Image,” the combination of the chorus and Wasner’s vocals showcase the vague but inherent emotion of the lyrics. In this track, they sing about understanding, clarity, and, as the EP title would suggest, the idea of “no horizons.” The final track of the EP, “Sky Witness,” also includes rather memorable lyrics that play on hidden meanings, such as “Trees in the wind are tapping / Morse code against my window.” Unfortunately, despite how well-written they are, the lyrics in this case are packed too densely to be appreciated at first, and no call-and-response format is used to give variety where it is needed. When the vocals evolve into a more legato sound, the emotion of the song becomes much clearer.
Outside of such noteworthy lyrics, No Horizon experiments with unusual dynamics. At times, the EP takes on a bright and artificial sound, as heard in the intro of “Spitting Image,” yet within the same song it quickly reverts back to warm vocals and rock percussion. Other aspects, like the change from a major to minor key in “Sky Witness,” provide jarring but usually successful shifts in mood. In fact, “Sky Witness” does attempt to transition through a whole array of flavors, but this ends up distracting from the power of each individual section of the song.
Overall, the No Horizon EP is an example of the invigorating sound that can come from a good collaboration. While some song structures could use some refinement, the EP remains a resounding success. Wye Oak pairs arresting lyrics with often beautiful instrumentation, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus adds a strong, surreal feeling to the EP that contrasts nicely with its rock and electronic elements.