For anyone who visited a music venue in Leeds in the ‘naughties’, it’s highly likely that you came across This Et Al at some point. They were famed for their no-holds-barred assault of alt-rock, juxtaposed with the sweet vocal tones of frontman Wu; four years on, and he has returned with a new project. You may be surprised to discover that Wu recorded the whole album alone; an impressive feat once you discover the amount of instrumentation and attention to detail in the recordings.
In some ways, Stalking Horse are the perfect antidote to This Et Al; there are vast amount of sonic space where the kitchen sink was once thrown in with this previous work, and this space allows Wu’s vocals to thrive in a far more natural sense; no longer battling with layered guitars and crashing cymbals, but finding mutual ground with ambient soundscapes.
It is none more apparent than on opener Key Strokes; revolving around e-bowed guitars and hammering drums, topped off with Wu’s lingering falsetto vocal that has always drawn comparison to the likes of Thom Yorke and Matt Bellamy. The distortion on the vocal makes most of the lyrics a little incomprehensible, but the repeated refrain “Tell me what do I need/to start again” is a poignant and apt worry of a man entering the world of the solo artist. As the song progresses, more and more guitars enter the fray without overwhelming, before vanishing to allow flutes to float along with Wu’s delicate delivery. Second track The Dawn Is Father To The Sun draws us further inside as it begins in the same vein as Key Strokes; minimal percussion and post-rock guitars, before piano chords and humongous detuned guitars take over, abruptly ending with a drifting glockenspiel riff. The track personifies the Specters as a whole, striking a fine balance between bombast and subtly, complexity and simplicity; each element of the instrumentation never outstaying its welcome. 99 Stairs and The Creeps hold the strongest part of album; the former an addictive ode to a Frusciante/Flea jam, mingled with reverse guitars and arpeggiated synthesisers, the latter taking the form of a straight forward indie rock which later metamorphoses into Kevin Shields guitars and twinkly piano.
Specters holds its own throughout; piano ballad Mistress has all the theatrics of fellow North Yorkshiremen Wild Beast in Wu’s most impressive vocal performance, while the driving beat and jangling guitars of lead track Heathen Head, Howling Heart dance around and make it the most upbeat track on the album. Wu showcases his zest for variety towards the end of the album with Little Rituals; led by a mandolin while ending in a choral sing-along that Arcade Fire would be proud of, and Waterhole; the most eccentric and electric song on the album decorated with interweaving vocals. Not all is gold on this record. Doctor a Heart is far too similar to Jeff Buckley’s Gunshot Glitter, and the circus inspired Lament is perhaps too sober to close the album. As the final guitars fade out, it is clear that Wu has accomplished exactly what he has set out to do; just like the talents of Grandaddy, Bat for Lashes and Bon Iver, he has put together a multifaceted and cohesive debut that most full bands couldn’t manage with months of jamming.