Ben Blackwell is the managing director of Third Man Records and formerly the drummer for the band The Dirtbombs.
“Dad, can you, um, play some better music?”
— Violet Blackwell, 9 years old, after hearing the first 10 seconds of the Wolf Eyes song “Phone Intro” from the album Difficult Messages
Back in the early aughts, one of the first Wolf Eyes records to pop onto my radar — one I would specifically search out — was a 7-inch with noise artist Emil Beaulieau. Limited to 50 copies and hand-numbered, I think I saw it a couple times on completed eBay auctions; there was something about it, which was impossible to put into words, that just made me feel deep to my core that I NEEDED to own this record.
Sometime later, I was shooting the shit at People’s Records in Detroit, and was stricken with eye-rolling disgust when one of those life-affirming record store geniuses behind the counter told me that said record actually had no music by Wolf Eyes on it. Rather, it was a tongue-in-cheek attempt by fellow underground scenester Beaulieau to “cash-in” (or, more likely, poke fun at) the idea that folks at the time were going entirely apeshit and paying dumb-money for anything with the words “Wolf Eyes” printed on it.
I mean, hell, he got me. Even after being told that, and giving exactly zero shits about Emil or his music, I still tracked down a copy of the record — maybe on the off-chance that the story wasn’t true, and it was a super-secret double fake-out of a single. Imagine my utter frustration when I finally obtained a pricey copy and realized that the record actually had NO music on it. Shit was just a blank record lazily spray-painted.
I’d been bamboozled. Beaulieau’d.
Because the fact of the matter is, I truly love the idea of Wolf Eyes. A long-running, DIY, no-fucks-given iconoclastic outfit that exists at the otherwise empty intersection of raw noise, free jazz, and punk abandon.
But in practice… the group and their output can be so hyper-specific, so singular, that the moments to throw them on the stereo have become fewer and more fleeting as I coast into my 40s with three daughters, who are more attuned to The Sound of Music and Olivia Rodrigo than Tod Dockstader and Anthony Braxton. I can usually be counted on to loop “Black Vomit” on Halloween until someone complains, but otherwise, well, a Wolf Eyes record demands a dedicated intention that feels increasingly infrequent in the realm of workaday life.
Which is exactly why Difficult Messages, the band’s latest record, hits this moment in time with unparalleled precision.
For a group with a discography littered with dark, ominous album titles like Dread and Slicer and Burned Mind, the relatively quaint and straightforward nature of the phrase Difficult Messages is a sharp 180 to what one might generally assume to be the demeanor and approach of Wolf Eyes, as they sprint into their third decade of confusing listeners. And if ever a time for a record to have an apocalyptic and fear-mongering title, your COVID album is absolutely the time to do so. But as predictably unpredictable as Wolf Eyes continues to be, Difficult Messages manages to confound as much as it delights.
The sounds here find more in common with minimalist dub than they do with Neubauten and it’s welcomingly refreshing. Maybe it’s a stretch to term anything contained in the grooves as “harmonious,” but there are undoubtedly flashes of melody. Of structure. Of cadence.
To these ears, that’s kind of the point. Created at a time when everything the world over felt turned upside down, unreliable, or just plain GONE… one way to counter the uneasiness is to flip the script. Make the unrehearsed appear practiced. The improvised, rote. The extemporaneous, automatic. And while all that feels nice, the tomfoolery and nigh-juvenile prankishness is right up in your face here. Yes, Difficult Messages is nominally a Wolf Eyes record, but scratch just the tiniest bit beneath the surface and one finds that there is literally only one track here credited to the band proper, the aforementioned “Phone Intro” that prompted my nine-year-old daughter to request “some better music.”
What is filling out the wax are a bunch of Wolfs-related side excursions, a majority of them featuring group mainstays John Olson and Nate Young under such anonymous and forgettable noms de l’art as Stare Case, Invisible Thread, and Animal Sounds — groups often fleshed out with past Wolf band members like Aaron Dilloway and long-time co-conspirator Gretchen Gonzales.
While the audio subterfuge here feels inspired by a Duchampian desire to gently fuck with folks, the visual imagery accompanying it is similarly unexpected. Since the late ‘90s there’s been a general aesthetic that could be stereotyped as “Wolf Eyes-ian”: rough, photocopied, lines at non-right angles, all seeming very rushed and not belabored. Yet the cover art here (and the imagery on the 7-inch boxsets) is, dare I say, pleasing. Warm. Beckoning for the listener, the viewer, the user, to enter further. To explore. To acquiesce. Enticing while still mysterious and open to interpretation. Awash and flowing and amorphous. Passively Bacon-esque in its color-melding swirls.
I’ve long thought the phrase “evolve or die” is qualified bullshit. Every last person or animal or organism to evolve has died or is on their way to doing so. Evolution is not the counter to dying. Evolution is the counter to BOREDOM. Everything on Difficult Messages is the quintessential definition of evolution, a liberty run with to the nth degree, an expansion out from that pinpoint of hyperfocus through the widest possible aperture of not even actually being the band listed on your record.
Motherfuckers Beaulieau’d this one… perfectly.
To me, that is the most defiant rebuke, to not just the most conventional music industry standard of titling, but boredom in and of itself. And in the end, we are all able to enjoy some better music.