Wheel - Charismatic Leaders

Artist: Wheel

Album Title: Charismatic Leaders

Label: Inside Out Music

Date of Release: 3 May 2024

When I reviewed ‘Resident Human’, the 2021 sophomore release from Wheel, I struggled. I heard bits and pieces that I liked but, overall, it was something of a disappointment for me. I went into the album blind, with no knowledge of their debut, but I’d heard plenty of positive things about the Finns from progressive music afficionados and I was expecting really great things. It didn’t materialise in the end for me and I can’t remember listening again to ‘Resident Human’. Fast forward three years and, whilst I’ve not read a single review going into this, I couldn’t ignore the clamour of positivity on social media platforms for this, their third album, ‘Charismatic Leaders’.

By and large, however, I find myself in a similar position to before – there is a lot to like about ‘Charismatic Leaders’ and I really want to like it, certainly more than I ultimately do. But, it’s not to be yet again. I ended the review for ‘Resident Human’ with the quote that “they seem destined to follow the likes of Tool and Opeth into the ‘they’re good, but I don’t really get what all the fuss is about’ pile.” I could say exactly the same thing again here. It’s a shame, but such is life.

One of the big problems with Wheel, yet again, is that their songs are generally long, drawn-out affairs, with three of the seven songs extending beyond the nine-minute mark, with two of these pushing near eleven-minutes in length. That’s fine, I can happily cope with that, so long as the compositions offer something to me that justifies the length. In much the same way as Tool, however, there’s too much technical meandering without any kind of blossoming or opening. The tracks are very much an exercise in rhythms, complex time signatures, almost pulling the listener into a trance-like state as the music develops.

It all starts really well, too, with the opening duo of songs initially forcing me to re-evaluate my initial thoughts after a couple of concerted spins. ‘Empire’ is a shorter track, only just over the four minutes and it wastes no time in delivering an up-tempo riff that immediately catches the ear. The initial heaviness predominantly at the hands of guitarists James Lascelles and Jussi Turunen recedes to leave the vocals of Lascelles alongside a rumbling bass to dominate the first verse. There’s an anger and intensity to the song that I like, especially when blended with the clever complexity and the quieter, more brooding passages. And the final stages are then handed over to a properly heavy and dirty riff which is superb. The melodies aren’t as pronounced or as overt as I’d have liked, but at this length and with that closing riff, I’m a fan regardless.

Meanwhile, ‘Porcelain’ really surprised me, as there are demonstrably strong melodies from the very beginning. The song initially carries a grungy edge to it as the melodic nature of the opening stages definitely impresses. It’s not the perfect song, though, as it does meander at points, particularly in the middle portion. It also feels a touch mainstream in its construction despite the seven-minute length, with ‘Schism’-isms to be heard, along with other fleeting references, including Karnivool and possibly Agent Fresco. However, the pronounced melody that bookends this song means that it’s easily my favourite track on the album.

It’s worth noting that the production on ‘Charismatic Leaders’ is out of the very top draw, much like its predecessor was. And, with a lyrical theme that’s built around the effect on society of the various media empires, it definitely has some interesting, thought-provoking lyrics scattered throughout.

Wheel - Charismatic Leaders

Unfortunately, after the early promise and a feeling that maybe Wheel had finally sucked me in to their own self-crafted soundscape, the near eleven-minute ‘Submission’ deflates my enthusiasm almost entirely. Again, the complexity and rhythmic strength of Wheel is there for all to hear. But, in my opinion, it goes absolutely nowhere. The riffs swirl, with the guitars a blend of bold riffing, dampened notes, and lead embellishments. The drumming of Santeri Saksala is sharp and precise, whilst the bass continues to pulse authoritatively. But there’s no release, no real killer melody, or moment of brilliance that cuts through the song. A bit like when I watched the ‘classic’ film ‘Alien’, I get to the end and think ‘oh, was that it?’

It’s much the same story for ‘Saboteur’, another lengthy exercise in doing a lot musically, but failing to engage me as a listener. I guess that on stage, Wheel’s music may come more to life and make more sense, but here, after a really nice opening riff that pricks my ears, we’re back to much the same. Admittedly, it carries more of a punch than ‘Submission’ in that there’s a great deal of groove to wrap your ears around, but it’s not quite enough, certainly not enough to justify its length.

In fact, I’d argue that the music of Wheel works better when the songs are shorter overall, as another four-minute workout entitled ‘Disciple’ hits the mark much more squarely for my tastes. The strings intro is a nice touch, whilst the ensuing Tool-esque riff is catchy, and the atmosphere of the song carries more weight. And the chorus of sorts offers a hook to latch on to within the technical intensity encountered throughout the composition.

I’m not a huge fan of the lengthy closer, ‘The Freeze’ either, although the extended quiet, introspective passages are not without merit. It’s ok, but again, doesn’t ever ‘wow’ me. For those of you reading this and thinking that I’ve not given it any real time, I’m writing this review as I listen for around the seventh or eighth time. Maybe that’s still not enough to better understand the music or discover that elusive epiphany, I don’t know. The problem is, I don’t feel overly inclined to find out. Rather than pure enjoyment, listening to ‘Charismatic Leaders’ feels too much of a chore for me. And that’s not really how it should be. In the interests of fairness and balance, I have absolutely no doubt that for many of you, this will be a year-end contender, because technically, Wheel are a very slick, polished band with genuine skill. It’s just the case that this isn’t for me, I’m afraid.

The Score of Much Metal: 73%



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