There comes a time when things have to end. Endings are strange. They can hurt, but when done properly they can carry you to places you never touched when the thing was still alive. After a career spanning the best part of 15 years, and five studio albums, Kendal four-piece Wild Beasts have managed exactly that, closing the door in such a way that will forever elevate their memory.
The band announced they were calling time in September last year via a carefully worded statement which inferred the split was a desire to preserve what they had created. An embalming, before time or creative burnout could erode their legacy. They promised a final chance to celebrate, and so it came to the Hammersmith Apollo, on a clear February night, to perform their last rites.
It was always destined to be a special evening, and fortunately the setlist was pure best-in-show. The Devil’s Crayon from their first record bounding straight into Reach a Bit Further from their third. The yelps of Hooting and Howling driving straight into the snarl of Boy King’s Big Cat. The evening provided an overview of a back catalogue that has been as coherent as it has diverse. It was a performance that had clearly been deliberated on and precision-rehearsed, intended to devastate over a luxurious two-hour running-time and in a venue of the Apollo’s size. Highlights like Lion’s Share from Smother, or Wanderlust from 2014’s Present Tense – both pulsing and bottom heavy – consumed every inch of the room.
In fact, for a band who have never had a commercial “hit”, the evening was a staggering reminder of just how many untouchable tunes they have written; just how comfortable they were in such a huge space. Tracks like Mecca or Loop the Loop proof that despite always being filed under “esoteric”, they were a group with pop sensibilities. Yet it was also a reminder of the darkest, strangest corners of their psyches – the apocalyptic feminism of Daughters springs to mind, with “the pretty children sharpening their blades”. That said, the evening was far from solemn. Returning to the stage following an interval, the strutting Get My Bang brought with it confetti cannons and streamers: one of a few unexpected but entirely deserved moments of real ceremony.
“By deciding to supernova, just as their star was about to wane, Wild Beasts have earned a near-pristine legacy”
Much of the night’s emotion simply came from sharing a room with so many devoted followers. They have always been a divisive group, certainly in their earlier days, so it’s not uncommon for those who’ve been with them from the beginning to feel a sort of protective pride; a perceived familiarity that goes beyond the usual fan-band relationship. There’s a mutual understanding that comes from backing the falsetto-fauvist group from the Lake District, and everyone relished in sharing that. From the constant yelps and cheers between each song, to the thousands of “Ohs” that introduced All the King’s Men, the air was thick with gratitude.
If there was a thematic “song of the night” – in any obvious sense – it was the closing track from 2011’s Smother, End Come Too Soon. Printed in bold letters on t-shirts in the foyer, the song title felt like a mantra, punctuating most pre-show tweets from mourning fans. It was, of course, the final song the band played on stage; a song about the finality of all things, even those “blessed with a neverendingness”. As the song reached its mid-point ambient lull, we watched the group lay their body of work to rest with a mid-song bow and a lasting group hug. Then, with the rush of drums that builds to the song’s crescendo, a curtain fell to reveal a women’s choir, cloaked in black veils, to accompany them – a fitting moment of winking melodrama before they drifted into blackness.
One of the big takeaways of such a triumphant display is to ask: why don’t more bands do this? By deciding to supernova, just as their star was about to wane, Wild Beasts have earned a near-pristine legacy, which is surely always preferable to dribbling away if you can help it. As they said themselves in their break-up note: “We’re caretakers to something precious and we don’t want to have it diminish as we move on in our lives.” Their final show was the ultimate act of artistic control. Reflective of a group who have always seemed considered, even in their impulses.
With the house-lights still not up, their audience unsure whether or not to leave, the gloomy backlights glowed back up, and the choir sang “Cheerio Chaps” – the closing track from the band’s debut album. It was a perfectly judged final moment, saving the evening from self-seriousness and concluding their career on a note as absurd and English, as it was poignant. So they left us feeling whole. Wild Beasts, who reified human without ever sacrificing the holy, and in ending made themselves eternal.
Photography: Aino Väänänen