WANG WEN (惘闻) — 100,000 WHYS

After the sprawling and wistful atmospheres of Sweet Home, Go! and Invisible City, Wang Wen (惘闻) return with their most accessible record to date. 100,000 Whys is packed with fresh carefree melodies, blissfully joyful arrangements and instant “cult classic” moments. A true testimony to loving life and… post-rock. It is the best album of the year!

Judging solely from the band’s last three records – the sprawling Invisible City (2018), the monumental Sweet Home, Go! (2016) and the eclectic Eight Horses (2014) – it comes as a surprise that the latest instalment in the Wang Wen’s admirable catalogue is also their most immediate and intimate record yet. The Dalian, China-based sextet are certainly no strangers to more slender and ‘carefree’ compositions, and have impressed us before with their chameleonic compositional style and immensely vast pool of influences, so much that each new chapter in their discography comes with its own unique soundscape and backstory. This latest record however, isn’t so much preoccupied with weaving expansive and transporting ‘concept albums’ as its predecessors, but rather, with sketching these slice-of-life scenes in bursts of vivid colours. Making clever and skilful use of psychedelic, dark jazz and 70s prog-elements, the band have infused their sound with a vaguely vintage, yet unmistakably characteristic atmosphere.

There’s a sense of urgency in Wang Wen’s eleventh studio record that’s not found anywhere else in the band’s vast and equally brilliant discography. An intangible yet familiar yearning and longing for life that permeates the eight tracks on 100,000 Whys and which turns them into infectious and unforgettable memories. There’s also a blissful sense of serenity that transports the listener along a joyous trip with overwhelming simplicity that makes for a truly captivating auditory experience.

100,000 Whys feels like a painting in the impressionist or metaphysical style; it is a Monet, a Carrà, a Pinchon, and in its most playful moments a Magritte or a De Chirico (without the existential dread). The analogy lies in how both – record and art movement – have a strangely tactile feeling to them. Both strip the real ‘thing’ of its material external components to see the metaphysical properties behind them. Painting the essence to see the essence versus playing the essence to hear the essence. Wang Wen play a stripped-back version of themselves to magically reveal their true meaning, their quintessence. Where their previous records could be characterised as solemn, 100,000 Whys is irreverent. Where they were sprawling and atmospheric, this record is playful and immediate. Where they were fiery and suffocating before, now Wang Wen sound blissful and harmonious. The result speaks a universal voice of bliss, beauty and love for life, like Monet’s Water Lilies.

According to the Wang Wen Bandcamp-page, 100,000 Whys was composed in pre-pandemic times. It feels weird to say but this record rather sounds like the perfect ‘post’-pandemic soundtrack. The songs sound as promising as bright sunny day. They appear youthfully nonchalant, unconcerned, and focused on enjoying the little things while they still can. There’s serenity in knowing that accepting the inevitable – whether it be this pandemic, ageing and the passing of time, the end of youth and the crumbling of bodies – and embracing that a new time comes with a new set of joyful realisations. In almost a prophetic way, Wang Wen urge us to not take things so seriously and re-evaluate our priorities given the current crisis and seeing our world burn. Get back to the basics, to nature, to embracing simplicity and uncertainty with the same fervent stride.

How could the introductory “Forgotten” and “The Ghost” not evoke moments of blissful ecstasy? Serene and peaceful, the former has a naturalist “feel” to it and is permeated by a sense of finding catharsis in simplicity that is so glorious about this record. The former is the joy that comes with each new day at sunrise, the renewal of life and how we tend to forget that there’s a little glimpse of joy in every breathing moment. The latter reminds me of Lupin the III & The Castle of Cagliostro and with its 70s throwbacks and a spooky finale it is an instant classic. “Wu Wu Road” takes an even more direct approach with a thick and robust riff urging the song forward with disarming efficacy. Featuring the closest thing to a guitar solo as the genre allows, this track is pure adrenaline with its bombastic pairing of synths and guitars in one final climatic ascension.

If it’s true that the Devil is in the details, so it is in bliss now, thanks to Wang Wen’s masterful portrayal of life’s immense fragility on 100,000 Whys.

Centrepiece “A Beach Bum” is a masterclass in ‘writing a post-rock epic’. The track’s linear, build-up-to-climax progression reveals fragments of the band’s sheer brilliance, while the more left-field compositional choices demonstrates their aptitude at evocative soundscape-ism. A light tune plays off a distant radio – perhaps it’s the beach bum’s – before a bubbly guitar retraces the breaking of waves on the sand. Add a saxophone, and we’re transported on that beach too, maybe surfing or making out, or even crying perhaps. All the same we feel the sand between our toes, the drops on our cheeks and the breeze in our hair as the track suddenly slows down, turning almost into a mantra before that same tune from the radio, now 100 times louder, throws us right into the water. Centrifuged, turned inside out by the roaring waves we eventually emerge in the middle of the ocean, renewed, and calmer than we ever thought possible. The song closes with a bird’s eye view of us floating in that warm mass of water and we’re renewed.

If Tomorrow Comes” is a dreamy guitar-led ballad that sounds exactly like the titles suggests. The track’s nostalgic yet tender mood, with its balanced weaving of guitars and strings perfectly stirs up feelings of yearning and longing for what the next day will bring, be it solace or more torment. The vaguely ballroom-esque arrangements and lovingly tender and intimate feel give this track a cinematic character as well. It is what I envision Porco Rosso and Gina dancing to (because they do get together in the end), or what I imagine the protagonist on his gondola in Venice plays for Tony Gardner’s wife in Kazuo Ishiguro’s short story Crooner. “Lonely Bird” is even more constrained and almost a lull with its gracious yet nostalgic progress, a tribute to a place or love lost. Perfectly placed at number six, the most introspective track on the record offers a prolonged moment of relaxation to allow you to take in all the beauty that surrounds it. An auditory palette-cleanser of sorts and generally, more pure bliss.

100,000 Whys ends on a slower yet energetic note, with slow burners “Shut Up and Play” and “Forgotten River”. The former offers a great tongue-in-cheek moment and has the most surprising ending on the record, and you’ll be whistling its infectious bombastic climax for days. The latter is the perfect album closer – if there exists one – and gifts the listener one more moment of lavish instrumentation and triumphant jubilation. “Forgotten River” is where 100,000 Whys‘ larger-than-life character really shines through by providing both a familiar serenity of a childhood picture and the conscious maturity of being in command of one’s life. The song ends with this dramatic and immensely impactful finish suggesting images of a river-side party, of reunion and celebration. If you’ve seen Spirited Away, imagine playing over a sped-up clip of the movie, ending with the Gods and spirits celebrating Sen’s return to the human world just as “Forgotten Rivers”’ grand finale irrigates everything with its passion and lust for life. A jubilant closing remark from Wang Wen, and the consolidated reassurance that things will be alright after all, echoing down silently as the curtains draw on 100,000 Whys. Like the protagonist in Spirited Away, you also gently return to this world as if waking up from a dream but with your heart and soul filled with awe, love, and gratitude for life.

Wang Wen are: Xie Yugang (guitars), Geng Xin (guitars), Xu Zengzheng (bass), Zhou Lianjiang (percussion), Zhang Yanfeng (percussion, violin) and Huang Kai (wind instruments). Photo: Little Dragon.

During this beautiful journey, 100,000 Whys takes a turn for the polished essentials, by stripping down Wang Wen’s signature sound and embellishing it with an arrangement of crystalline purity. The resulting eight tracks sound fresher than ever, each with its own peculiar character but all reverberating with a lush and organic feel complimentary to the record. Compared to previous efforts, this newest chapter is the perfect compendium to understanding Wang Wen’s nature and compositional play in which it offers a glance at the backbone and the pure essence of what makes this band so unique. 100,000 Whys is Wang Wen taking eight minutes to do what used to take them a quarter of an hour. It has the sprawling atmosphere of Invisible City, the rich complexity and catharsis of Sweet Home Go! and the lavish mysticism of Eight Horses elevated by the serene and carefree attitude of a newfound youth, the dexterity of expert hands and the conviction of a fire burning brighter against the wind. 100,000 Whys has this undefinable ‘breathing’ quality to it, as in it all sounds so alive. This record possesses a living and pounding heart, pulsating with each song.

I’ve quoted from Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation before, but 100,000 Whys has the same hyperreal organic character as the natural elements in Area X, where every sense is heightened, and every colour is more real, more vibrant, and brighter. Here too, textures are lush and gorgeous, instrumentation crisp and luscious with each passage vibrating at a higher frequency. In Area X one finds oneself in violent and deadly revelation. In 100,000 Whys there’s lots to be found, from a youthful yearning for freedom and liberty to a celebration of life in all its simple joys and cherishing every moment. If it’s true that the Devil is in the details, so it is in bliss now, thanks to Wang Wen’s masterful portrayal of life’s immense fragility on 100,000 Whys. Such beauty is truly humbling and inspiring. It’s empowering, soothing, comforting and at times even overwhelming. It is generous, passionate, honest, and universal. It is for all of us now that we all needed it the most. Thank you, Wang Wen.

This album is… ******enlightening.

100,00 Whys was released independently on October 26. The album is available as a digital download via the Wang Wen Bandcamp-page.

A physical release on vinyl and CD formats is scheduled for September 24 through Pelagic Records and is available for pre-order via the Pelagic Records webshop.

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