“We could release a hang-drum odyssey with seagull noises and somebody would still say it sounds like Tool!” Wheel have no time for outdated comparisons

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In the two years since Resident Human, Wheel have undergone internal changes that very nearly destroyed them. But the Finnish-Anglo band have bounced back with the more experimental Charismatic Leaders. Singer and guitarist James Lascelles tells Prog about the challenges behind creating their third studio album.

The last time Prog spoke to Wheel, the future looked bright. The Anglo-Finnish band were about to release their second album, Resident Human, and frontman James Lascalles seemed in good spirits as he discussed mindfulness and the benefits of yoga and exercise, explaining how they’d helped him work through issues that had caused him to “completely burn out” in summer 2020. Only, Lascelles wasn’t out of the woods yet.

“It took me quite a while to bounce back,” he admits. “Resident Human was a very odd place to be, for all of us. In many ways I think recording it was the only thing holding me together. All my paid work in Finland had stopped and I was just trying to grind away.

“Eventually I got a job in a factory,” he continues. “For a moment it looked like our career was done; 2019 had been such an amazing year for us, so it really felt like this profound sense of loss. We really weren’t sure where we’d go from there, so I think there was a lot of pain and confusion that went into the album. Life and death, considering our place in the cosmos... that kind of stuff.”

Three years on, Wheel are in motion again. Returning to the road after the pandemic helped establish a sense of momentum they’ve carried forward to their bold new album, Charismatic Leaders. They’ve also rediscovered a sense of heft that made them rising prog metal stars in the first place. Three albums in and almost a decade since they formed, Wheel are coming into their own.

“‘Formed’” is a strong word,” Lascalles says. “Originally it was all just a demo on my computer I’d done with my old band in the UK many, many years earlier. That ended up being the material for our debut EP [The Path]. We’ve come a long way.”

When James moved from the leafy English county of Hertfordshire to the cosmopolitan city of Helsinki in the early 2010s, he knew there were no certainties. He also knew he needed a change of scenery, and that Finland had some of the finest musicians on the planet – perfect for realising his dreams.

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“The most profound difference was just how well-trained all the Finnish musicians are,” he explains. “Here, you could go to the smallest bar in the most remote town to see a band and they would be breathtakingly spectacular.”

Whatever magic ingredient that Finnish musicians added to the mix, it worked. In 2017, The Path landed Wheel on the radar of fellow Helsinki resident Paavo Lötjönen of Apocalyptica, who introduced them to his band’s management. “Their business know-how and support has been indispensable in the rise of Wheel,” Lascelles says.

This album keeps the density of Moving Backwards but also has the live energy of Resident Human

Two years later, they were ready with their debut album, Moving Backwards. Switching between propulsive alt metal choruses and idiosyncratic time signatures and polyrhythms, it was clearly indebted to Karnivool and Tool – but nonetheless marked Wheel as a distinctive prog metal force in their own right.

Moving Backwards was very processed and mechanical – which is actually what we wanted, as it fit the themes of the music,” Lascelles explains. “By contrast, Resident Human was very live and open, because we’d been touring the year before and wanted to capture a better sound. This album is a happy medium: it keeps the density of Moving Backwards but also has the live energy of Resident Human.”

Speaking ahead of the release of Charismatic Leaders, Lascelles is in a sunnier place, figuratively and literally. The singer and guitarist is enjoying some much-needed R&R in the Spanish city of Barcelona. “Plus, it beats Finnish winter,” he adds. “As of maybe the end of last year, I’ve got back to normal productivity and creativity for the first time in a long time.”

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That doesn’t mean Charismatic Leaders came without its challenges. “Our bassist, Aki Virta, left during the recording process. He has a very young family and had been missing them whenever we went out on tour, so the timing just wasn’t great. We also had technical problems; we didn’t have lyrics finished... all these minor and not-so-minor fuck-ups during the process. But I’m really proud of how we’ve handled it, because it’s turned out super-well.”

This pride in the material is matched by the vibrancy of the album itself. Recorded with engineers/co-producers Daniel Bergstrand and Fredrik Thordendal of Meshuggah, the LP captures Wheel at their most insistent and forceful, in stark contrast to the more meditative tone of Resident Human.

We were pretty sure we had a very heavy album, especially compared to Resident Human, which had more of a psychedelic side

Opener Empire rampages out the gates atop riffs that could come from arena-sized metal acts like Alter Bridge, while Porcelain and Submission drift on ocean-deep melodies closer in style to Mastodon or Deftones. “From the start, we were pretty sure we had a very heavy album,” Lascelles says. “Especially compared to Resident Human, which had more of a psychedelic side. Fredrik and Daniel worked on it for 16 hours a day for about three weeks.”

An avowed Meshuggah fan, Lascelles admits he was excited to work with the fellow guitarist. “Fredrik had this huge wall of amplifiers, so he was like, ‘We’ll get you one sorted,’” he recalls. “I figured that meant we’d be testing each one, finding the sound that worked. But I turned up the next day and he’d already picked one out. He was like, ‘There’s no point testing them; this is my best amp.’ It sounded fucking amazing and we used that for the whole album.”

Wheel also took a more experimental approach with their songwriting. Guitarist Jussi Turunen earned his first songwriting credit with acoustic instrumental Caught In The Afterglow, while Lascelles explains that Porcelain came about as a result of a 20-minute jam he edited down into a seven-minute composition.

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Despite all this, the band still haven’t been able to escape the comparison that has dogged them on each new release: Wheel clearly love Tool. “There’s a comment on the YouTube video for Empire, like, ‘Another Tool copycat band.’ I’m just thinking, ‘If this sounds like Tool to you, I’m not sure you’ve been listening to Tool.’

“Some of our stuff, definitely: we’ve borrowed polyrhythms, weird meters and elaborate structures – but Empire doesn’t sound like that at all. At this point, we could release a hang-drum 20-minute odyssey with seagull noises and somebody would still say, ‘It sounds just like Tool!’”

We’ve got massive companies advocating for overthrowing governments, live on television

As propulsive as Wheel might sound on their new album, it’s nothing compared to how fired up they are lyrically. Lascelles has never shied away from being outspoken: the song Movement was written about the death of George Floyd (“The police shouldn’t be able to murder somebody in broad daylight,” he says), while on Moving Backwards he took aim at totalitarianism. Charismatic Leaders may be Wheel’s most political record to date.

“I can see why you’d say that, and maybe you’re right,” Lascelles concedes. “At the time, I felt Moving Backwards was more explicitly focused on politics. But it’s the most sacred duty of art: to hold up a mirror to society.”

The new record certainly does that. Empire was inspired by a lawsuit launched against Fox News after the broadcaster spread claims about voter fraud in the 2020 US elections. A $787 million (£633 million) settlement was eventually made out of court. “It just blew my mind that the owners of this company were able to sell that without any consequences whatsoever,” Lascelles marvels. “We’ve got massive companies advocating for overthrowing governments, live on television.

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“These companies have a huge impact on how we view each other. Especially those we disagree with. We come away with these caricatures of the worst versions of somebody, creating an avatar of everything we hate into a tangible person we can be cross at.”

Although it’s not a concept record, much like The Wall and Operation: Mindcrime before it, Lascelles uses lyrical concepts to explore societal ills. Case in point: Disciple is based on an idea of cults and their operating methods, explored through the medium of a character who has escaped and one who’s still inside, each arguing their case.

We’ve been conditioned over recent years to believe that protesting is ineffective – which I’m certainly starting to believe

“They’re both trying to save each other from their perceived positions,” Lascelles explains. “We see it everywhere now though: popular music, politics; they’re all reading from the cult playbook.”

All this plays into the album’s title. Lascelles admits there are obvious figures who he could be referring to, but also that the idea behind the title goes further than any one individual. “The further I got into the lyrics, the more I realised a lot of places can be described as having ‘charismatic leaders.’”

Global politics are more divisive than they’ve been in decades, and the frontman acknowledges there’s a level of timeliness to the album’s arrival. “We’re watching this gradual erosion of democratic freedoms wrapped up and smuggled in with these fear and identity politics. We’ve been conditioned over recent years to believe that protesting is ineffective – which I’m certainly starting to believe, as the intent of the protest is never as important as the media framing of the narrative around it.”

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With the album ending on the lyrics, ‘Smother your inner child, swallow your empty promises/For there is no escaping this,’ it would be easy to read Charismatic Leaders as closing on a bleak note – but Lascelles points out that not everything on it is as it seems. “That particular song is actually more about facing reality.

“I was drawing quite heavily on my frustration with myself because we hadn’t finished the lyrics and had so little time left. ‘Smother your inner child’ is referring to the process of accepting there are limits to what you can achieve if you ever want to have an end-date.”

And while Wheel may be taking pot-shots at everything wrong with the world, Lascelles says a ray of optimism is threaded within the album. “At the very least, I hope people find some catharsis,” he says. “I’m too jaded these days to think music can save the world, but I do think it can change how we think and feel. It’s done that enough times in my life.”

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.