Wheel – Charismatic Leaders (Album Review)

Review of the new Wheel album ‘Charismatic Leaders’

by Stephen Joyce

In Geddy Lee’s recent unmissable memoir, “My Effin’ Life”, he sagely observes that “…the more influences one has that are then filtered through one’s own personality, the more one ends up with a style and a sound that one legitimately call one’s own.” These insightful words from the former Rush bassist could well have been written about Wheel, a trio from Helsinki, Finland, who formed in 2015.

While there is no denying the progressive metal heritage that permeates their music, Wheel has a musical identify that is unequivocally distinctive and unique. Fans of bands like Porcupine Tree, Leprous, Haken, Opeth, Metallica and yes, Tool, will all find something to love here, but Wheel is clearly a band that transcends these comparisons.

“Charismatic Leaders” is Wheel’s third album following 2019’s debut “Moving Backwards” and 2020’s “Resident Human”. Deliberately making a more ‘metal’ album this time, “Charismatic Leaders” is packed with musical diversity and inventiveness and above all, mighty fine TUNES. Although not quite a concept album (no bad thing!), the songs explore the cult of personality that has scourged western politics in recent years and the lyrics have a barbed edge and certainly make you think. “Charismatic Leaders” is destined to be a landmark release for Wheel and feature highly in ‘album of the year’ lists throughout the music-loving world.

Album opener “Empire” grabs the attention with an adrenaline-surged gallop which interplays with brooding bass-laden verses. Its dramatic “You’ll Reap What You Sow” coda – a polemic against the multimedia oligarchy of Rupert Murdoch – is genuinely stirring and closes out an exhilarating four minutes that makes you salivate for the rest of the album.

“Porcelain” is up next and through its seven minutes it perfectly exemplifies the brilliance of this album: songs that move, inspire and effortlessly flow between moments of exquisite beauty and devastating brutality. Vocally, this song is a tour de force. With ‘clean’ vocals throughout “Charismatic Leaders”, singer James Lascelles wrings immense passion and emotion from his voice and accessible, thoughtfully dark lyrics. His voice has a depth of heart, soul and ferocity and he evokes many disparate feelings in the listener.

Track three, “Submission”, is a near eleven-minute odyssey. The intricate melodic/percussive interaction between the three band members is strongly evident here. It’s a song of multiple strong musical ideas that are tightly arranged, flow well and hold your attention with some truly thrilling music, especially in the climactic final minute. It’s a stunning song and my favourite on the album.

Fourth song “Saboteur” is possibly the heaviest track on the album and over its nine minutes, showcases Wheel’s mastery of angular riffage, unforgettable melodies and adventurous scope. Its ‘Hypocrite, Charlatan’ lyric sticks in the mind with a pointed intensity and the guitar work, in particular, is outstanding on this track.

Complementing their highly masterful performances, guitarists Lascelles and Jussi Turunen possess some of the most gorgeous guitar tones I can remember hearing and this is typical of the sonic awesomeness of this album. Recorded with engineers and co-producers Daniel Bergstrand and Fredrik Thordendal, the end result, mixed by Forrester Savell, is a lush, hypnotic listen. Every crushing riff, delicate note, drum hit and vocal inflection is presented with absolute clarity and with a warmth of sound that delivers a genuinely immersive listening experience.

Track five, “Disciple”, is a tightly arranged four-minute earworm dominated by a soaraway Lascelles vocal and guitar riffs cleverly underpinned by agile double-kick drumming. It’s a rousing song that one imagines would be astonishing in a concert setting.

The sixth track is a short but deliciously eerie acoustic guitar interlude, effectively setting the mood for album closer “The Freeze”. Expressing the paralysis and hopelessness many feel as they see atrocities playing out thousands of miles away, this ten-minute song builds an unsettling atmosphere, layering menace and intrigue – and just when you think it can’t get any more epic, it DOES!

Drummer Santeri Saksala unleashes a percussive onslaught that is an all-out assault on the senses. From the shimmering hi-hat in the middle of the song to the drumming apocalypse that heralds the hair-raising coda, it’s clear that you’re listening to a master craftsman. Saksala’s performances throughout this album have power, technical brilliance, groove, subtlety, masses of feel and above all, an exceptional musicality. His playing in the final two minutes of “The Freeze” evoke the late, great Neil Peart’s pyrotechnics on Rush’s 2112 Finale and Cygnus X1, and I can think of no finer compliment.

Refreshingly, Wheel successfully avoid the self-indulgence which can plague progressive metal music. Eschewing excessive soloing and ensuring that every minute is impactful, these seven finely crafted songs keep the listener utterly absorbed and the 47 minute running time rushes by, leading you to hit the replay button and relive the experience of this album again and again. Like so many truly great albums, “Charismatic Leaders” repays repeated listens by revealing more nuance, artistry and tunes that burrow deep into your mind – and stubbornly refuse to budge.

The wheel was an early humankind invention that transformed the world. Wheel, the band, may just transform our listening habits. “Charismatic Leaders” is an album that commands respect, loyalty and unswerving devotion. In a world currently bereft of authentically charismatic leaders, don’t despair: Wheel may just have the antidote. Seek solace in fine music – theirs!

Released on May 3rd, 2024 on InsideOutMusic


The full track-listing is as follows:
1. Empire 04:20
2. Porcelain 07:12
3. Submission 10:46
4. Saboteur 09:01
5. Disciple 04:12
6. Caught in the Afterglow 01:12
7. The Freeze 10:35

James Lascelles / vocals, guitar
Jussi Turunen / lead guitar
Santeri Saksala / drums

1 comment

  • Mikko Määttä is not in the band anymore.
    On this album bass was performed by Nipa Ryti and James Lascelles

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