We’ve all been facing the fickle fragility that comes with being human; the foibles that add up to a modern world filled with as much hateful rhetoric as it is with moments of beauty, all ready to be digested by the soft glow of a mobile phone. Protests calling for societal change, our reliance upon technology, it’s all a part of what we’ve witnessed and gone through over the past year. An influx of Zoom calls; physical interactions reduced to near-nil; face masks a now common sight - things are just different.
What Anglo-Finnish prog-metal troopers Wheel have seen, however, is an opportunity - one to emerge through the triumphant rubble and dust of 2019’s prowling and expansive debut ‘Moving Backwards’. Now, they’re ready to peel apart that intrinsic nature which has come to light.
Enter, ‘Resident Human’.
From the desperate content harvest of copy/paste culture (‘Ascend’) to the polarised rhetoric surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement in America (‘Movement’), ‘Resident Human’ is Wheel vocalising the ashes they’ve witnessed falling throughout 2020 - putting a voice to our fallible nature.
With their first headline tour booked in for February 2020, and the promise of a US tour waiting for them in April, it was around then the instrumental bare bones of ‘Resident Human’ were coming together. Initially to be squeezed into a 10-week recording period, their plans changed once COVID-19 hit the world hard; the band had to roll with the ever-changing punches.
Pushing back their allotted studio time, as a three-piece of vocalist and guitarist James Lascelles, bassist Aki Virta, and drummer Santeri Saksala - after guitarist JC departed amicably in Spring (with Jussi Turunen later joining the ranks) – Wheel hunkered down to get the album together.
However, finding James on the receiving end of some burnout in June, the decision to completely delay ‘Resident Human’ worked all for the better: “I’m so glad we did because after that I wrote what I think are the best lyrics on the album,” he says.
Given ‘Moving Backwards’ was charged by a societal return to tribalism, the transition into the hefty unpacking of humanity, both in a societal and an individual sense, was a logical next step for the band. Citing touring and interactions with people across Europe - in a time when both were possible - as the seeds for his empathetic understanding, all leading to the realization that “most of us want the same things.” James’ mind is one which focuses on the bigger picture - removing himself far enough to note just what’s going on, while empathetically retrieving the human nature of what he bears witness to.
Expanding the subject matters even further, inspiration also came in the form of sci-fi novel series Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons. With its dealings in the work and life of the poet John Keats, astronomy, politics and a series-long contemplation of what it is that makes us human, the songs it directly inspired including ‘Hyperion’ and ‘Dissipating’, which lend themselves to the struggle against mortality and coming to terms with the indifference of the universe respectively.
Packing a punch into the seven tracks that make up ‘Resident Human’, each is varied in its motive and action. Across the vivid vistas of expanding and contracting sounds come the same jagged rapture as ‘Moving Backwards’, but far from treading old ground, this time things find a new level of focused intensity.
The power and might portrayed throughout evokes the same desolate freedom of thundering down a dirt road; dust and stones whipping up reminding you of the vastness of life, from the smallest pebble to the most powerful thunder and beyond.
With three of Resident Human’s tracks clocking in at over ten minutes – something that’s not unusual in Prog - it’s one thing to drone on in a loop till you hit the ideal marathon, but James and his Wheel cohorts have crafted them so the monoliths remain “perfectly balanced and in proportion”, even if that means removing something which in itself is justifiably good.
While there comes a barreling determination throughout, there’s also its own human element that flutters organically. All by design, where ‘Moving Backwards’ was a glossed sheen compound of what Wheel had been working towards on the prior EP’s, this time, James was conscious to avoid erasing those human elements, after all, if the world is peeling its layers back, why not appoint ‘Resident Human’ its own biological life force in the form of a hand across a fretboard or a tempo change unplanned?
For someone who knows just how he wants things to go - a perfectionist if you will - going against his natural instinct to gently nudge a note back into its logical place, or let the masterplan carry out as intended, “It was fucking awful. It was absolutely terrifying!” He laughs.
But it’s all for the greater good. ‘Resident Human’ is Wheel rising skyward, the continuation of cementing themselves as a prog influenced, grunge tinged behemoth, as at home with measured volleys of booming riffs as they are with a thunderous torrent.
Even when the opposite presents itself, such as the end of the journey where all the chaos and measured madness falls away, leaving the ethereal respite of ‘Old Earth’, a gentle pool offering reflection after the climb across ‘Resident Human’ and its vast terrain comes the same Wheel offering of opportunity to experience something intense.
“We joked at the start of the year that it’s going to be the year of progressive music concept albums about COVID,” James laughs. “And we’ve kind of done that…but it’s more about the time COVID has allowed us to explore ourselves rather than the pandemic itself.”
The future still remains uncertain, even with the faint glimmer of hope coming in the form of vaccines making the viability of returning to familiarity more likely, still, it could all change. As for Wheel’s 2021, James has no idea how that’ll look, but with the band’s second album delivering such titanic reflection and sounds, Wheel are ready to take on whatever comes next with full force.