All right, they suckered me. I thought that What?! were starting a gimmick tradition of rolling out cute singles named after foodstuffs. A natural suspicion – their debut single had the crowd-pleasing title of Tikka Masala. Actually, it turns out that “schwaffelen” is Dutch slang, and refers to a man repeatedly bouncing his semi-erect penis off assorted objects (ranging from someone else’s cheekbone to the side of the Taj Mahal). Handy phrase – consider me educated. I’ve been saved some embarrassment the next time I’m snacking in Amsterdam, but have been left with a delightful image of waffles-and-cream that I now need to bleach from my mind. Thanks for that.
What?! remain the kind of supple instrumental trio that gives slick a good name – guitar, bass guitar, drums and a thorough versing in everything out there which grooves. They also own a not-so-secret knowledge of plenty of things which don’t groove but which do lurk, puzzle over things and then jump out at you. But they’ve yet to really show their other teeth: those rougher, odder inspirations they claim to get from Zappa, Dub Trio and Mr Bungle. So far, they’ve been more about delicate sunlit jazzy chords and walks, clean deft swing, and plenty of space. You get the feeling that they could do anything with their material – as soon as they wanted to – and that they’re fencing with expectations. It’s just that it’s still not clear when they’re going to stop fencing and start carving.
As much as you might want them to get nastier, Schwaffelen doesn’t show What?! chucking away any of their finesse in favour of skronk or sludge. If they’re stepping towards a spikier direction, they’re starting subtle – taking some sour art-rock patterns and passing them back and forth through the smooth-jazz filter. As with Tikka Masala, there’s a hint of Take 5 in the gently precise stops and feints as a bossa nova is displaced and reshuffled into math-rock spikes. But the truth is that, in spite of the cock-bouncing title, What?! keep their all-things-to-all-men decorum throughout – even when hitting the distortion pedals.
If you’re hoping for some upheaval – something like the obsessive rhythmic knotting of Battles, say, or the disruptive slice-and-dice of Naked City – you’re in the wrong place. Schwaffelen’s flexing sections do include a flawless switch into driving rock as guitarist Niels Bakx starts blasting away and Agostino Collura’s nimble bass drops its funky slither and locks down into root-note pummeling. But this is more an exercise in clever distraction. Even as Raphael Lanthaler drums along at motorway-punk velocity, the whole band are keeping an eye on the little loping twists of the original rhythm: as it ghosts on underneath, they’ll lock seamlessly back into it whenever they choose. Even the texture phase (in which Niels seems to be channeling the sparse echo-spangled touch of Andy Summers) adds some extra breadth but no questioning depth or disruption.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter – whatever else they might or might not do, What?! remain supremely elegant puzzlers. But it still feels as if there’s much more to them. The Key Ness remix of Schwaffelen is barely half the length of the original, but during its stay it chops, rewinds and pans the original riffs around a gastric roller-coaster of sub-bass and boiling P-Funk synth. Along the way, it twirls past Alice Coltrane harp cascades, brief bursts of classical soul orchestras, wind-tossed shouts from hip-hop MCs and gutsy flowerings of Spanish guitar. It sounds more like what must go on in the trio’s heads – what they must listen to on iPods, gulp down from session to session, or coast by on the bus.
One last thing, going back to the original track… As it snaps to a halt and telescopes away, with a quick twist-and-growl, those push-pulling rhythms leave you in a state of expectation. There’s a moment of hover. Then there’s several messy, prolonged seconds of the most horrendous splurging musical spoff-noise you can imagine. Maybe it’s a surprise, a pancaked blast-beat hurled out by Raphael to be crushed flat in the mix. Whatever it is, it’s a Zappa-style kiss-off. Perhaps I’ve been unfair to What?!. They did finally deliver that dirty splatter.
What?! (self-released) (no catalogue number or barcode)
Released: 1st April 2013
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