Since its introduction in 1992, the Hyundai Mercury Music Prize has sought to promote the best of UK music and artists. Every album is open to consideration – albeit once the entry fee has been paid. A shortlist of 12 “Albums of the Year” is curated by an independent panel of judges. Following several months of deliberation, the judges meet in person to select a winner.
In recognition of their accomplishment, all shortlisted artists receive a specially commissioned ‘Album of the Year’ trophy. Finally, the winner is presented with a trophy and cash prize of £25,000 at a star-studded event. More importantly, the winning album and artist receive increased mainstream awareness, which in turn results in a significant boost to their profile.
As ever, the 2018 shortlist featured some industry heavyweights amongst the nominees. This included previous winners Arctic Monkeys, Everything Everything, Florence and the Machine, Everything is Recorded, Jorja Smith, King Krule, Lily Allen, Nadine Shah, Noel Gallagher’s High-Flying Birds, Novelist, and Sons of Kemet. However, the winning entry came from a band who defied the bookies’ odds.
“Visions of a Life” by indie rockers Wolf Alice is only their second studio album. Described as an alternative rock album, there are clear influences from a wide range of genres. Musical styles ranging from punk to shoegaze blend seamlessly with electronica and synth-pop. A youthful energy underpins the maturity of each composition, which gives each track a sense of driven independence. Catchy pop-laden hooks slip into your brain to linger forever more, exemplified by standout track “Don’t Delete the Kisses”.
Who are Wolf Alice?
Starting life as an acoustic duo, the four-piece from London are Ellie Rowsell (vocals, guitar), Joff Oddie (guitars, vocals), Joel Amey (drums, vocals), and Theo Ellis (bass). Having expanded personnel-wise their live rig has evolved to incorporate MIDI systems, loopers, and an array of FX. Wolf Alice’s sound can best be described as dense, and they are definitely not afraid to push boundaries.
Let’s look at some gear that’ll help you create soundscapes like the Mercury Prize winning guitarists Rowsell and Oddie.Ro
Did someone say Fender?
Rowsell’s no-nonsense fretwork cascades from the Tele’ thanks to its consistent feel. Whether belting out epic riffs or making light work of solos, she commands the stage with her dutiful workhorse in hand.
Oddie’s experimental style can roam freely thanks to the Jag’s extensive switching capabilities. Intricate circuitry unlocks a tonal universe before he’s even touched any outboard gear.
Loud and clear
Crisp, clean rhythm tones yield to monstrous overdrive at the drop of a hat in Wolf Alice’s tunes. Therefore, having a versatile amp that can switch comfortably from clean to dirty – and back again – is a must. When it comes to amps, Rowsell and Oddie favour a straightforward Fender Hot Rod or Vox AC amplifier.
Kitted out with beefy all-valve arrangements, the amps’ increased headroom allows them to be pushed hard. The sparkling clarity of clean licks and riffs ring sweetly, without unwanted overdrive taking over. Save for the adoption of some amp reverb, all effects come via a dizzying arsenal of outboard gear. Shall we…
The raucous energy of tracks “Yuk Foo”, “Formidable Cool”, “Sadboy” and “Visions of a Life” harks back to the early ’90s glory days of grunge. Both Rowsell and Oddie appreciate the awesome power of the Electro Harmonix Big Muff, and the legendary stomp box litters the album with its ferocious tonal onslaught.
Bending time and tone
Oddie’s pedalboard could do with a write up all to itself, such is its complexity. Not only does he tackle guitar duties, but he’s also responsible for triggering one-shot samples and performing keyboard parts. Oddie carries out this dual role using an Apple MacBook Pro and his trusty Novation Launchkey 25.
However, moving swiftly back to his guitar tone, along with an avalanche of distortion at times there are mesmerising, swirling concoctions of sound. These come from a plethora of boutique, custom, modified and industry-standard FX units.
Notably, Strymon’s Big Sky elevates and expands the space afforded to his exploits, The accompanying Timeline provides everything from cheeky slapback to delays that ring out for days. One example of the brilliance of both pedals working in tandem features on the track “Planet Hunter”.
Tucked away in his setup there’s an awesome Electro-Harmonix Nano POG for generating the swelling octaves of his boisterous outbursts. So crammed is his pedalboard but so strong was his desire to include a POG, Oddie opted for the Nano version, which he puts to good use throughout the album.
Rowsell employs a stripped-back approach when achieving her tone on stage. The tank-like BOSS RV-6 stomp box handles reverb duties, and the legendary MXR M134 Stereo Chorus produces shimmering greatness. MXR’s Analog Chorus pedal does a fantastic job of achieving a similar tonal elegance.
As you can see (and hear), Wolf Alice don’t shy away from the rough stuff but can just as readily slip into a bright and breezy number. The directness of Rowsell’s approach provides a nice counterpoint to the complexity of Oddie’s setup.
However, they both share a love for Fender guitars and amps, classic Vox amps, including a smattering of FX such as chorus, delays, and reverbs, then layering everything with a hefty dose of distortion.
They might not be re-inventing the wheel. But consider their stellar song writing and performing prowess, and it’s clear to see why Wolf Alice are destined for greatness.