David Wrench and Evangeline Ling threw absolutely everything at their 2018 debut album Now! (in a minute), a hectic, head-spinning blast of freewheeling freak-pop genius. On its follow-up Astro Tough, they’ve somehow found a way to ramp things up even further, concentrating their chaotic energy and inherent weirdness into a record that’s bigger, deeper, and more powerful than even its predecessor. While their first record emerged from off-the-cuff, experimental sessions, they sharpened Astro Tough to a razor’s edge. “Anything that bugged either of us, we went back and ironed it out,” says Wrench.
It’s a mark of their brilliance that they’ve managed to hone their sound while simultaneously broadening their palette. Multi-instrumentalist and super-producer Wrench is as comfortable unleashing monolithic psychedelic wig-outs and heavy dub-driven monsters as crafting irresistible synth-pop bangers. Writer, vocalist, and visual artist Ling is as chameleonic as she is charismatic, jumping from detachment to rawness to aggression to tenderness to hilarity to toe-curling awkwardness, sometimes within the same song.
Audiobooks’ music can be a lot to get your head around, but it’s precisely that instinctive rejection of comfort zones that makes them brilliant. “One of our best gigs was when everything went wrong,” Ling laughs. “All the sound cut out while we were really in the zone. Everyone was shouting and swearing and being abusive, then when it came back on. It just went up another level. The gigs that are all over the shop are the best ones.”
They started their new album as soon as they could feel themselves settling into their first. “We’d been playing the same songs repeatedly,” Ling continues. “In rehearsals, we were dying to sing something else. I could feel myself getting too used to being onstage.” To counter it, they started actively fostering pre-show nerves. “We realized that Evangeline would have this crazy burst of energy before performing,” says Wrench. “Whenever we were rehearsing, or while the crew was unpacking and getting everything ready, we’d record some vocals when we could use that energy.”
Above all else, Astro Tough is a record that brims with energy. With their roles diverging more clearly than on their debut – Wrench handles almost all the music, Ling the lyrics, and vocals – both dig deeper into the enormous emotional potential of each. “I definitely go to town with my feelings,” says Ling. “If I find I’m in a certain mindset, I’ll go as extreme as I can with it in my lyrics. I know I’m being over-dramatic.” Take the babbling hedonism of ‘Lalala It’s The Good Life’, for example, or ‘Blue Tits’ – a song so toe-curlingly seedy that it’s sometimes too much even for the singer herself.
She’s matched in her maximalism by Wrench. Synths begin to swarm and gather on the record’s opener ‘The Doll’ before launching transcendently upwards. On ‘The English Manipulator,’ they plunge into a hulking and potent psych-dub epic, elevated further by one of Ling’s most dynamic, relentless performances of all. Though each member has delved deeper than before into their roles, the way they combine them remains the most astounding thing about their sound. The way Ling reaches a frenzied scream about an acne outbreak just as Wrench’s blaring synths become almost too much to bear on ‘Driven By Beef’, for example, or the sickly tumbling strings that back Ling’s more aggressively sleazy moments on ‘Blue Tits’’. audiobooks have never felt so in control of their volatility.
Audiobooks placed a significant emphasis on refinement this time around, concentrating and intensifying their chaotic powers. When performing early iterations of tracks like ‘Black Lipstick’ and ‘First Move’ live while on tour for their first album, they paid close attention to what worked and what didn’t – how best to make their crowds dance, cringe, cry and laugh. “Playing stuff, you know, is a draft to an audience feels a bit naked, but I feel like I learnt loads from doing like that,” says Ling. “Finding out what was working on stage was a good way to test things out.”
Armed with the knowledge of exactly what works in a live setting, audiobooks knew precisely how to hone things to the sharpest possible edge in the studio. “The first record was almost entirely first to take. It was all improvised,” says Wrench. “This time, we’d do that, then go back and refine it, take longer to work out parts and redo some vocals. Anything that bugged us, we went back and ironed it out.” Take ‘Farmer’, the opulent, dramatic ballad that closes the album. “We gradually built it up over time. Whenever I was near a piano, I’d add a little more.”
Though the record is a product of increased refinement, the pair were physically together only in bursts, cramming sessions around their hectic calendars. “We had much less time together than on the first record, but every time I did see David, that thirst and the ability to come up with something was there. I think this is better than the first record, and I think we’re dying to make more. We’re going to try and better it again,” Ling says.
Even when the coronavirus outbreak ended those intense sessions, audiobooks kept relentlessly fine-tuning; here, Wrench’s production wizardry came in handy. “The album was 95% there at that point, but we still had final bits of lyrics that we had to do over voice memos. Evangeline would sing into her phone, and I’d have to do some serious sonic manipulation to make it sit next to vocals recorded on super expensive mics….”
“Although it did need a few takes,” his bandmate interjects. “He’d be like, ‘can you try it standing up?’ He knew when I was sitting down!”
Even at this late stage, the two were unafraid to rip it up and start again radically. “’First move was quite drastically altered at the last minute,” says Wrench. “It was bugging us both. Eventually, we had a frank conversation about how we needed to tear it apart completely. So, during the lockdown, I’d walk an hour to the studio, check on a few mixes, add live drums to the track, then walk an hour back.”
As audiobooks were making the final adjustments to their new record, the world around them was getting grimmer by the day. As a result, a darker side to their sound began to bubble to the surface – a newfound heaviness that’s apparent on the eery and driving ‘He Called Me Bambi’, for example, or the whirling ‘Trouble In Business Class’. “We would have got there anyway,” Wrench points out; this is not a ‘lockdown record’, “but being in that frame of mind did make it easier to see how we needed to tweak things. There are light moments in this record, but the lyrics are darker in general.
On Astro Tough, audiobooks are completely sincere. They’re also wholly joyous, wild, angry, powerful, hilarious, vicious, vulnerable, intense, and brilliant. It’s the sound of David Wrench and Evangeline Ling reaching new peaks of creativity, more confident than ever before in their abilities to forge something focussed, singular and unique out of the explosive combination of their talents.
Endlessly forward-thinking, it says that they’re already fixated on what’s next. “The conversation never stops,” says Wrench. “Even earlier today, we talked about ideas, a whole list of new things to try in the creative process. We’ve already got more songs that aren’t quite finished but are really strong.”
“I’m just dying to get back into the studio,” adds Ling.
The article was adapted from heavenlyrecordings.com.