There are few surprises here from Matt Berry on his latest solo outing. Kill the Wolf picks up precisely where Witchazel left off two years ago, plunging listeners right back into the dreamy and psychedelic world of ‘60s prog-folk where he last led us. However, far from regurgitating the songs and style of Witchazel, Berry offers new explorations into his finely honed and lovingly constructed retro-verse, deftly combining gentle folk-pop with more brooding, atmospheric prog-like meanderings. His intentions are crystal clear with opening song “Gather Up”, an archaic sounding chant using lute and a women’s choir to join him in imparting an almost eerie sense of displacement in time. That, and the lyrics listing a multitude of herbs and plants that wouldn’t be out of place in a witch’s arsenal, combine to set the stage for Berry’s mystical sonic journey into some very satisfying and unusual pop. “Devil Inside Me” offers an upbeat contrast from the prior track, with gently thumping percussion, subtle electronic flourishes, and another backing choir. Lyrically, he speaks literally about duality and the haunting asynchronicity between his inner and outer selves. The music reflects this, jumping from melancholy self-pity to major key smooth lightness, broken up with an electric violin solo that rocks in a way only a violin solo in the middle of prog-folk song can – that is, satisfyingly.
“Fallen Angel” continues gently through lilting and airy verses, moving into a madrigal-like refrain. “Medicine” is where we first really connect back to Witchazel’s easy pop charm: the guitars gleam and sparkle and there is a choir featured again, cavorting with Berry in metaphorical sunlit pastures. It’s a fully enveloping, warm autumn day in song form, completely surrendering to curiosity, new experiences, and unrestrained pleasure. All of a sudden, we are thrown right back into the rabbit hole of self-doubt and darkness with “Wolf Quartet”, a woodwind instrumental that suggests the come down after a psychedelic drug trip. The reference to polyphonic madrigals is revisited at the beginning of “Solstice”, the album’s centrepiece. Berry’s vocal line is interspersed with the opening bell figure, both repeating themselves as washes of sound gradually bury them and then stop altogether. The second part begins like a reprieve of sun breaking through clouds, but it too is quickly dispersed by that haunting line, this time augmented with unsettling ornamentation and played by woodwind and keyboard. Following some progressively driving instrumental sections, an electric guitar solo is unleashed on this moody scene, capped off by Berry’s lyrics about the shortening daylight. The song indeed has the same claustrophobic feeling as the rapidly shortening days of autumn and of yule: there is less time to accommodate the same daily tasks, but more importantly it’s a pagan pact between nature and humankind to renew light and agricultural abundance for the coming spring. This reference to pagan spirituality is depicted perfectly in Berry’s capable hands.
“October Sun” is light and pleasant on the surface, with some lovely finger-picked guitar, but its lyrics depict a darker scene. Biblical themes become apparent with lines such as “Michael, Peter, Mark, and John/Please forgive me for I have done you wrong/I sense evil, I fear it here today/Like a bad dream that never goes away”, likely also a reference to the Black Paternoster. “The Signs” delves into groovy ‘60s pop without a trace of the psych and folk influences so prevalent elsewhere on Kill the Wolf. It even has a short saxophone solo that I don’t hate and don’t mind calling groovy…again. “Knock Knock” has a languid, laid back strut to it that strangely complements the strings used for accent and atmosphere. Pagan rituals are again the subject in “Bonfire”, which instructs the villager to “clear the field, make a circle/a gift to those for watching over/marks the end of October”. Something’s going to happen, he admits it (albeit with tongue in cheek): “there’ll be smoke, and lots of magic”. That’s taken up with “Village Dance”, following closely on the heels of “Bonfire”. Reprising the musical figure from “October Sun”, Berry leads us into a kind of saturnalia festival, a beautiful and joyful time of hope and promise, led by strings, chiming bells, and warm voices. Finally “Farewell Summer Sun” brings the album’s disparate elements together: after some instrumental intervals, Berry’s sonorous voice returns, once more with choir, along with folky guitar and soft percussion. The lyrics tie up the pagan winter festival themes of looking to nature for social and material promise in a time of winter scarcity, comparing the wait for the next summer sun to waiting for a lover who will return from a journey. The tune is mellow and soothing, calming relying on nature to provide what is needed as well as accepting the inevitable change of the seasons and cyclical nature of life.
A very subtle, textured, multi-layered, and engaging album, Kill the Wolf effectively expresses its themes of pagan spirituality, reliance on nature, dualities of good and evil in everyone, and the joy of new experiences equally in both its music and words. Berry’s ever-impressive musicianship (and versatility!) mean that he can fully pull off such a specifically themed album as this one, full of references foreign to much of the mainstream pop climate. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable on a surface level, either: he’s an incredible pop songwriter as well as a canny stylist. Basically, you can get as much out of Kill the Wolf as you want, or as much as you’re willing to put in, perhaps. It’s more rewarding with more time and energy, but it’s a fantastic pop piece any way you devour it.