The Aberration of WU LYF

Jeff Cubbison

10 years later, WU LYF’s one-and-done LP Go Tell Fire to the Mountain remains as rapturous and mystifying as ever

It was an unseasonably dark and stormy day on the Empire Polo Fields. And despite the lack of blistering temps that overwhelm the senses year after year, Coachella 2012 Day 1 trudged on – ponchos and raincoats replacing the usual flower crown and tank top flair. As the Arctic Monkeys swaggered through the main stage downpour to the delight of most in attendance, over in the tiny Gobi Tent, a much more captivating and beguiling performance was underway courtesy of the lesser known, cultish Manchester art rockers WU LYF. 

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Between the meditative instrumental lulls, explosive crescendos, throat-shattering vocals and unwieldy singalongs, watching this willfully elusive band captivate several thousand rabid fans felt like a downright religious experience. With his unnaturally gravelly singing voice and quirky stage presence, frontman Ellery Roberts turned the Gobi Tent into a church; Roberts assumed the role of preacher, the fans became parishioners, and the anthem “We Bros” morphed into an emphatic closing sermon. Truly rapturous stuff. And for a group as mercurial as WU LYF, the performance felt like a turning point – the moment where they’d finally step out of the shadows, embrace the spotlight, and assume a more traditional existence like any other indie buzz band with crossover potential. But it was not meant to be.

Back in 2011, the influence of the indie blogosphere seemed to be at an all-time peak. Bands like Yuck, Smith Westerns, and Cults were splattered ad nauseam on every site’s Artists to Watch features. Pitchfork was busy steering Odd Future’s bullet-train of hype, and acts like The XX, Beach House, and Japandroids were shedding their buzz band tags on the way to indie icon status. That year’s SXSW was a riot wherever you went. Even Hipster Runoff was still very much a thing. With each new profile, feature or listicle touting an act as the “future of indie,” fans were becoming intimately familiar with every promising new artist that came along. The hype circuit was unstoppable, and the tell-all confessional age of social media was in full swing. For the most part, artists and their PR and press teams were very willing participants in this process. Overall, it felt like there was very little mystery or anonymity left in the scene.

And then there was WU LYF.

Clearly, something about this band was different from the onset – not just musically but also in the way they approached their budding stardom. As teenage musicians growing up in Manchester, pals Ellery Roberts and Tom McClung lied about owning a record label in order to recruit guitarist Evans Kati and drummer Joe Manning into the fold. “They were a little disappointed; they thought they’d hit the big time,” Roberts remarked in a Pitchfork article published much later.

The quartet adopted the moniker WU LYF (an acronym for the self-coined Satanic-tinged phrase World Unite! Lucifer Youth Foundation), and started playing shows and cutting their teeth in the British DIY scene. Over time, they earned a reputation as an incendiary live act with a unique, genre-bending take on indie rock. Bold, anthemic, touch-the-sky type stuff, but with a scraggly, rough-around-the-edges demeanor. WU LYF’s initial rise was an entirely organic process, generated through word-of-mouth hype based on the strength of their performances.

Eventually they formed a fan club called the Lucifer Youth Foundation, through which they exclusively released physical copies of their debut singles “Heavy Pop” and “Concrete Gold.” As those tracks spread about the internet like wild fire, so did their notoriety. So the story goes.

Of course, this is all information that we’d gather way down the line. Because right from the get-go, WU LYF engulfed themselves in secrecy. Outside of the small cult who witnessed them in a live setting, nobody really knew anything about them – even as “Heavy Pop” and “Concrete Gold” began generating coverage from the indie blogs. When it came to dealing with the press and record companies, WU LYF did NOT play the game. In fact, they actively went out of their way to shun the whims of the industry. They charged A&R reps to listen to their songs, they declined interview requests, and they sent out vague press releases and obscured PR photos. They also stayed silent on socials, and they even tried deleting their own Wikipedia page multiple times.

In reality, these efforts to bypass the usual internet hype channels would end up having the opposite effect. Instead of the industry turning its back on WU LYF, it globbed on even harder. But of course, this was all a transparent, calculated move on WU LYF’s part – a well-executed strategy of building mystique. As press coverage of the band intensified, the words “enigmatic” and “evasive” were thrown around quite a bit. The band’s manager Warren Bramley had decades earlier worked under Tony Wilson at Factory Records, a label known for pulling this sort of strategy with bands like Happy Mondays, OMD, and Joy Division. WU LYF followed that roadmap of cultivating their own aura of mystery, and for a while, it seemed to dominate the conversation – almost as though the music was secondary. But then again, nobody would have paid them any attention if the music wasn’t spectacular. And it was.

When WU LYF set out to record their debut album, they haggled over where to set up shop. Unimpressed with the compact, “stale” quality of traditional recording studios, they chose to record in St. Peter’s Church in Manchester’s Ancoats neighborhood. The church’s cavernous, sprawling acoustics allowed them to explore a more echoey, reverb-soaked palette. Ultimately, that creative choice is what yielded the endlessly lush, static-filled quality that permeates Go Tell Fire to the Mountain.

For a debut LP, WU LYF arrive fully-formed on Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, a record that encapsulates an inner spiritual journey from start-to-finish rather than a collection of individual songs. Thematically, WU LYF paint a dark picture of a world plunged in chaos, but with an overwhelming sense of motivation and triumph in the face of that darkness. Musically, it’s a kaleidoscopic indie rock record that doesn’t adhere to any one genre – an elixir of dream pop, shoegaze, post-rock, math rock, and so much more. And it’s all rendered in such subtly transgressive ways; off-kilter time signatures, crescendo-chasing lead guitars, and throttling post-punk basslines carry a heavy emotional load at every sonic turn.

Given the hellish imagery of the band’s name, the album’s motivating narrative through-line and the fact that it was recorded in a church, many made the mistake of characterizing Go Tell Fire to the Mountain as a religious album. It’s not, though on the other hand, it’s clearly the work of a band of jaded ex-Catholics. “I’ve always been fascinated by religion but I’m wary of all the rules,” McClung shared in an interview with The Quietus. “I just think religion has no faith in human beings. And I’m much more interested in human beings who do good for themselves rather than out of fear of God.” It’s that sentiment that forms the thematic crux of Go Tell Fire to the Mountain: faith in oneself.

So far, I’ve barely even mentioned the single most defining quality of WU LYF’s music: Ellery Roberts’ voice. That fucking voice.

More dog’s bark than human, Roberts’ voice is so dissonant and scratchy that the lyrics are almost completely unintelligible. He sounds like a jagged midway point between Tom Waits and Morrissey. Or Jarvis Cocker with a mouthful of gravel. The noises he makes would mangle and shred any normal person’s esophagus. It’s the sort of voice that would feel right at home in a black metal band; in an anthemic art rock group, it’s jarring to say the least. “I want my vocals to be nondescript enough that you can contextualize them yourself,” Roberts told Pitchfork. “When it’s more abstract, it leaves more of a space for imagination and dreaming and thinking.” For a long time, WU LYF did not officially release lyrics for any of their songs. So back then, whatever you were reading online was anybody’s best guess. Even now as I read through the official lyrics and listen along, I’m still not totally convinced. But I’ll take their word for it.

But that’s part of the magic of WU LYF and Go Tell Fire to the Mountain; while sometimes you can’t pin down exact words, you can absolutely derive the meaning and spirit of the music through Roberts’ gnarled grunts and moans, as well as the band’s galvanizing textures. Go Tell Fire has been accurately described as music for “dancing around a campfire.” I prefer to think of it as the soundtrack for the eve of the apocalypse.

The album traces a coming-of-age story with a concrete beginning, middle, and end. Opening on a series of celestial organ notes, “L Y F” eases listeners into the calm before the storm before throwing them fully into it. Motifs capturing a sense of jaded restlessness and displeasure at the status quo pepper the track along with crashing cymbals and gazy, noodling lead guitars. Right off the bat, the production is soaked and lathered with distortion, conjuring intense emotional and aural turbulence.

“Cave Song” and “Such A Sad Puppy Dog” induce the strongest feelings of sadness and melancholia. “It’s dark/ In this cave/ The spotlight/ Can’t find the stage,” Roberts growls on the former, anxiety mounting over airy, atmospheric melodies. Meanwhile, “Puppy Dog” ambles forward under intense organs, pondering a sad life cycle of injustice. For a while, the mood of Go Tell Fire is bleak, but in spirit, our heroes trudge on.

Right as “Summas Bliss” hits, the album perks up and runs through the full range of emotions. Whirlwind chord changes and beat switches accompany Roberts’ sudden defiant attitude, and it’s here where the album’s central motif first presents itself: “I see the mountain/ On fire/ Now go tell some fire for us,” he shouts on the dramatic chorus. It’s the first of many rallying cries imploring the listener to fight back and speak their truth. The album’s most iconic hit, “We Bros,” douses everything in a towering, unifying spirit. It’s a reprieve from the battle at hand as sharp, mathy lo-fi arpeggios and repeated chants of “WE BROS” bring friends together to stare straight into the fire and soak up the agony and the ecstasy within. “We bros you lost man/ We bros so long/ Put away your guns man/ And sing this song,” Roberts chants, a recognition of the darkness that’s out there, but also a command to let go, come together, and be free. Euphoric campfire singalong material indeed.

While “Spitting Blood” lithely hovers over an idealized world in the face of hardship, “Dirt” plunges us back into a fraught pit of conflict and tyranny. Manning’s frantic, tribal drum patterns pound and pulsate intensely as Roberts foreshadows an approaching apocalypse, furiously repeating the rebellious “Go Tell Fire” refrain with laser-like focus. When Kati’s cascading guitar solo hits, the song goes from undertow to full-blown riptide, sweeping the listener away into a tidal wave of inner turmoil. The backing vocal harmonies even sound like a werewolf howling at the moon.

Eventually, Go Tell Fire hits its victorious, uplifting climax on “Concrete Gold,” the most full-blown post rock track on the album. The song initially ebbs and flows placidly as Roberts describes the people who “hold you down/ But you know they hold your crown.” But the emotional turning point hits as Kati unleashes a stratospheric riff that crescendos for what feels like an eternity. It’s the transcendent moment of triumph we’ve been waiting for, a signal that the “crown” has been reclaimed.

From there, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain closes on a one-two punch of catharsis. “14 Crowns For Me & Your Friends” is a gorgeous, snowballing ballad and reminder of persistence: “Every body needs you/ To be brave.” Finally, “Heavy Pop” acts as a final pat on the back, a feeling of hope, longing and acceptance as we stare into the abyss of the unknown: “I wanna feel at home,” Roberts concludes over bleary riffs, simmering organs, and a meditative harmonica. That “Heavy Pop” was the first song WU LYF ever released makes this winding journey feel wonderfully cyclical.

Ultimately, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain treads the thin line between being life affirming and life negating. WU LYF recognize how dark and cruel the world can be while also offering the rumbling encouragement to persevere through it. You can’t prevent the world from self-destructing, but you can find a way to avoid self-destructing with it. And furthermore, you can even revel in the beauty of the sinking ship. Life sucks – might as well have a great fucking time, right?

When Go Tell Fire dropped, WU LYF started to slowly emerge from their cocoon of anonymity. They finally granted interviews to the likes of Pitchfork, The Quietus and The Guardian, shedding light on their methods and madness both within the music and beyond it. They booked slots at major festivals and even performed on Letterman. In the moment, the Coachella performance that I witnessed really did feel like a rebirth for the band – the moment where they’d finally recognize their popularity and run with it. And in an era where guitar music was slowly dying at the hands of EDM and blog rap, WU LYF felt like a potential savior of rock. Instead, they imploded as quickly as they blew up.

In November of 2012, the band released a final song called “T R I U M P H” along with a note from Roberts abruptly announcing WU LYF’s breakup – a move that shocked not just fans, but also his own bandmates. “WU LYF is dead to me,” it summarized stingingly. But for a band whose shroud of secrecy presented itself in often volatile ways, their dissolution isn’t all that surprising in hindsight. Bands break up for a myriad of reasons, and when they do, it’s hard not to ponder the question of “What Could’ve Been?” It’s no surprise that the members of WU LYF often alluded to a love and appreciation for hardcore. Although they weren’t a part of the genre, their break-up absolutely mirrors the journey of the countless young and angry hardcore bands that split on the precipice of stardom. Perhaps Roberts had his eyes on greener pastures, or maybe they just weren’t getting along. But something tells me it was a more philosophical move. “I’d much rather people hate us than just give us a general seal of approval,” Roberts cryptically told Pitchfork several months earlier. Maybe that was just it. WU LYF had become too pleasing for their own good. For as much as their music was about finding the light at the end of the tunnel, maybe now the light shined a bit too bright.

Eventually, the members would go on to form a number of offshoots and solo projects, none of which have really blown up since. Roberts most notably has been recording under the moniker Lost Under Heaven (LUH) for the last several years, and much of that material has been outstanding. There’s a bit of WU LYF DNA in all the members’ post-breakup output, but sometimes it leaves you longing for that enchanting feeling that the band became known for. In 2016, their Twitter account tweeted out the message “soon,” leaving fans to speculate about a reunion. That never materialized, and it proved to be the last in a long line of mystifying stunts from the band. It’s been radio silence ever since, and as time goes on, a reunion looks increasingly unlikely.

Go Tell Fire to the Mountain turns 10 years old this week, and even though the album is an all-time classic in my book, it still feels like it’s relatively slept on today. I believe there’s a number of reasons for this. Firstly, I think it’s kind of difficult to contextualize WU LYF as a band. Even though they operated under the same genre umbrellas as many other bands, they never really sounded like anyone else. They had contemporaries, but no real sonic peers. In today’s “related artists” sections of Spotify and Apple Music, you won’t really find any perfect fits. Youth Lagoon is close, but that project was more minimal and lo-fi bedroom pop-leaning. Local Natives are a nice shout, though WU LYF were always far more adventurous, experimental and conceptual than them. In today’s interconnected streaming age, it’s hard for the average listener to pivot to a band that sounds like nobody else before, during, or after them.

It also doesn’t help that WU LYF existed for such a brief moment in time. Their DIY come-up was steeped in anonymity, their ascension to word-of-mouth buzz band was rapid-fire, and their disbandment even more so. Despite commanding the fascination of the indie world – even for just a fleeting moment – and for as great as their only album is, WU LYF don’t really feel like the cult legends that they deserve to be. They feel more like an aberration.

Thankfully, we still have Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, the one perfect thing that WU LYF left behind to remind us that they did, in fact, exist. And they were awesome. If it ever looks like the world is about end, I know exactly which album I’m going to throw on to play me out.

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