When Sway begins, you might at first press pause, reaching for your headphone wire or peeking behind your speaker cables to make sure nothing has come undone. The blister of distorted guitar that opens the album comes only from the right channel, howling and hanging there in irascible isolation until it seems that something must be wrong.
But be patient: After a dozen seconds, the rest of Whirr—a five-piece of blanketing rock focus and comforting pop finesse—pours in from the left channel. They meet the guitar in the middle, together racing headlong into a short section that’s heavy as metal but pliable enough to be the springboard for the galloping shoegaze beauty that soon arrives.
For the next 36 minutes, you need not worry again about lost connections, split channels or anything else, really. More than any Whirr release to date, Sway creates a definitive sense of immersion, sculpting an environment that breathes you in instantly and breathes you out only when the record snaps into silence.
That bifurcated start is an appropriate image for Whirr in 2014. In 2013, the band headlined a tour with the Philadelphia group and fellow admirers of heaviness and harmony, Nothing. Not only did the crews become fast friends, but their respective founders—Whirr’s Nick Bassett and Nothing’s Dominic Palermo—decided to start a group of their own, Death of Lovers. When the shared tour was finished, Bassett headed to Philadelphia for a month of writing and recording. He’s never really left. He calls Philadelphia home now, so Whirr has become a bicoastal band.
In Philadelphia, Bassett worked on Death of Lovers’ debut for Deathwish Inc., toured as the bassist for Nothing and steadily composed new material for the next Whirr album, their first full-length for Graveface. Back in Oakland, the rest of Whirr had committed to the project full-time, too, so the West Coast contingent wrote and rehearsed new material without Bassett. Joey Bautista took the lead on two songs, Loren Rivera on three.
Indeed, against most odds, Bassett’s move made for a more democratic Whirr. In their salad days, Bassett had written most of the material and built the bulk of the arrangements, too, using the support only to enrich and enliven them. After a slew of splits and singles and EPs, Sway is the second Whirr LP, but it is only the first to be rendered by a fully functional rock band, having shaped the songs slowly and over some distance.
Before the quintet entered Oakland’s Atomic Garden to work with longtime producer and collaborator Jack Shirley, they reworked the contributions of all three writers, massaging the material into a cohesive dynamo. Rivera, for instance, rewrote the words for Bassett’s material, folding his songs into the album’s presiding sense of dusky melancholy.
“It’s not conceptual, entirely, but it’s intended to ebb and flow in a certain way—one song being aggressive, then dropping out and being pretty but devastating,” Bassett says. “We tried to create an atmosphere, where you listen and get vibed into one tone.”
That rhythm presides over Sway, tying its distinct parts into a seamless unit. The restless “Heavy” churns somewhere between Godflesh and Gish, its lumbering beat and foreboding guitar buoyed by a melody that feels like a secret hymn for which you’ve long searched. Gorgeous and sprawling, “Sway” floats through luxuriating guitars and pillowed vocals, offering an impressionistic but intoxicating inversion of Whirr’s typical propulsion. Even here, during the record’s prettiest moment, Whirr maintains a righteous minimalism, emblematic of members who met one another as skateboarding high-school kids.
“The aesthetic of the band is more aimed at mature punk rather than alternative rock,” Bassett confirms. “There are these more aggressive punk elements—noisy feedback, a snare roll that just goes into super-punchy, driving songs.”
“Clear” brilliantly paints its lyrical quest for lucid communication—“I want words/to understand you,” runs one plaintive, surging bit—in music that takes up the same challenge. Whirr pushes past a pastel instrumental haze into a hangdog march, with near-whispered vocals bruised by Devin Nunes’ drums and Eddie Saldago’s orotund bass line. But as the end approaches, the band builds together, the riffs and the rhythm colliding into one triumphant, redemptive crest.
And that’s the victory of Sway, too, an album written by five people on two coasts but executed with the force and splendor of, at last, a fully unified Whirr.
Graveface Records released Sway on CD, LP and digitally September 23, 2014.