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Header photo by William van der Voort
All three members of gothic rock trio Esben and the Witch, Thomas Fisher (guitar/keyboards), Daniel Copeman (electronics/guitars) and Rachel Davies (vocals), have recently relocated to Berlin from their former base in Brighton. Along with the geographic broadening of their horizons, the band appear to have expanded their musical boundaries as well. Their latest release ‘Older Terrors’ looks, on the surface, like an EP, with only four songs on its tracklisting. But its total running time of 46 minutes is actually lengthier than both of the last two albums I’ve recently reviewed. (For reference, Skinny Lister’s ‘The Devil, the Heart & the Fight’ packed 12 concise songs into 36 minutes, and Bell X1’s ‘Arms’ kept to a svelte 9 tracks and 38 minutes.)
What does this mean? Have Esben and the Witch recorded four exceptionally prolonged alt-pop songs, or have they composed four miniature symphonies? I wasn’t familiar with the band before listening to ‘Older Terrors’, and I found it difficult to answer that question without context. My ambiguous first impressions of the album were of dramatic, slowly evolving musical arrangements geared toward creating a dark, ominous ambience, and a singer whose voice is by turns ethereally beautiful and emotionally tortured, often a blend of both.
A quick virtual trip through TGTF’s archive of past coverage on Esben and the Witch served to confirm my initial thoughts. In a a 2010 Bands to Watch feature, our writer remarked that “lead singer Rachel’s voice does, at times, bear a strong similarity to that of Florence Welch”. A review of the band’s debut LP ‘Violet Cries’ talks about the “Brighton trio’s fixation with darkness . . . feelings of dread and solemnity, [and] the overriding sensuality of it all.” Editor Mary used the words “eerie”, “sinister” and “haunting” to describe videos from Esben and the Witch’s second LP ‘Wash the Sins Not Only the Face’ and the phrase “stark and forlorn” to describe ‘Dig Your Fingers In’, the first single from third album ‘A New Nature’.
Looking back upon ‘A New Nature’, we can see Esben and the Witch starting to explore longer, and more expansive musical arrangements: two songs on that record are over 10 minutes long, and three others are over 6 minutes in duration. With ‘Older Terrors’, the band has completely set aside any preconceived notions of writing songs within a 3-minute box, instead choosing to develop musical ideas in a fashion more typical of classical composers than rock musicians.
Opening song ‘Sylvan’ is comprised of three distinct sections, Davies’ serpentine vocal melody weaving through each, loosely holding them together with a series of indistinct but strangely evocative words and phrases. The primitive drum beat and slow harmonic tempo of section one gives way through an extended guitar riff to a stark, anticipatory middle section and ultimately to a dynamic and dramatic climax in the third and final section.
The minor key Spanish guitar melody warms but doesn’t disguise the sinister undertones in ‘Marking the Heart of a Serpent’. Davies’ vocal tone is once again light and limber in the fluid melodic line, almost hypnotic in quality, and it leads the unsuspecting listener to a bit of a shock in the dynamic attack of the song’s middle section. The lyricless instrumental frenzy of section three stretches into a coda that runs out of steam rather than coming to a conclusive finish.
‘The Wolf’s Sun’ opens with the protracted growl of guitars and singularly Gothic-sounding lyrics: “so lead me through the dark / your fingers clawing at my heart / clutching me against your breast / inside your crook, I’ll lay my head”. The hypnotic initial combination of steady bass ostinato and amorphous vocal melody evolves into a surprisingly groove-based middle section, and a positively primal freak out at the song’s end.
Closing track ‘The Reverist’ opens with a slow, hazy instrumental prelude that evokes a vague visual idea of gradually emerging from shadow into a dim and misty light. Davies’ middle section lyrics, however, twist the narrative into something more sinister with the repeated phrase “ships on fire”. The musical arrangement follows suit, growing more and more agitated before it descends into the depths of its own eventual demise.
The broadly experimental nature of ‘Older Terrors’ is to be applauded, even if the songs themselves occasionally stretch past the point of cohesion. To use a drama-related analogy, which seems appropriate for such an inherently dramatic set of songs, there are moments where the plot wears a bit thin, and its devices, in this case the instrumental arrangements, become overly convoluted. Nevertheless, ‘Older Terrors’ leaves in its wake a post-apocalyptic sense of utter stillness and of dark, delicate beauty. A massively impressive effort, and for myself, an indelible first impression.
‘Older Terrors’, the fourth album from Esben and the Witch, is available now via Season of Mist. TGTF’s complete past coverage of Esben and the Witch is collected through here.
When it comes to out of the ordinary, new wave, alternative pop music, it seems that Manchester is the place to be. There may not be many bands doing this kind of thing, but the calibre of bands who are is incredible. Dutch Uncles are definitely one among the great Mancunian new wave scene who have just shared the release date for their upcoming 5th studio album ‘Big Balloon’. And luckily for us, they have released the title track, the album’s first single, last week as a preview to the long player.
Dutch Uncles present a forward-thinking side to pop music. It is very intricate, intelligent and thoroughly thought out. Each instrument plays its own part, and never used just to fill space. After four previously released studio albums, the Mancunian four-piece now have quite a back catalogue of releases. With each album, there is an unexpected development within their music, shown through the band experimenting more with ambiguous time signatures and phrasing, as well as producing erratic rhythms catchy hooks.
Without a doubt, ‘Big Balloon’ continues this trend. The song opens with an absolutely monstrous bass riff from primary songwriter and bassist Robin Richards, then goes into what Dutch Uncles do best: create an off-kilter rhythm that plays around with the accents of a 4/4 beat, creating the illusion that it’s in an irregular or compound time signature. Being a bass player, I was instantly hooked and wanted to learn the bass line. The first 5 seconds of this track shows so crystal clear why Richards and drummer Andy Proudfoot work so well together. The heavy use of mid frequencies within the bass tone are excellently accompanied by Proudfoot’s huge, deep, full-sounding drums, filling out the lower frequencies, thus resulting in an exceptionally powerful rhythm section.
Frontman Duncan Wallis defuses the tension of the strictly rhythmic bass and drum groove perfectly with an ‘80’s synthpop keyboard sound and his soft, calming vocal tone we all know and love. He recites lyrics that point perhaps toward mental health, but it’s always difficult to decipher his ambiguous and sometimes genderless lyrics. The approach to the vocal melody within ‘Big Balloon’ is very well executed, despite being in some ways basic. Melodically, it doesn’t venture far from what would be considered safe, but what Wallis showcases in rhythm is where the topline grasps the listener. Bearing this in mind, Wallis’ note choice, in partnership with the extended chords, manages to embellish the bass incredibly well. In this case, what he’s doing is both difficult and simple, as the bass is only playing one note (D) but in two octaves.
The structure of this song is strength in itself. The band knows how good the drum and bass intro is and how well it carries the track. With it, they know how long it can continue before it loses its novelty. Right on the cusp of waning interest, the chorus drops – rather unexpectedly, but still as driving as the previous 39 seconds of bass-driven pop. The chorus opens the song up, unveiling the hidden choir of vocal harmonies and dream-like synths that sprinkle the seemingly never-ending chord progression, solidly led by the thick, heavy bass notes. Although the guitar has been quiet up until this point, it continues the chorus somewhat with an emulation of the vocal melody, but covered in fuzz. In doing this, it helps strengthen the main focal point of the track by providing a contrast to Wallis’ smooth vocal melody with a crunchy, distorted version of the melody.
If the single ‘Big Balloon’ is anything to go by in relation to the upcoming album, we’re in for a serious treat.
‘Big Balloon’, the fifth studio album from Dutch Uncles, drops on the 17th of February 2017 on Memphis Industries. The single is available now; stream it below. You can find dates to the supporting tour in the new year here. For much more TGTF goodness on Dutch Uncles, go here.
November has been a bit of an abbreviated month for posts here at TGTF, with our American contingent (editor Mary and myself) taking time off to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday last week. However, we have seen no shortage of new music this month, with exciting tracks from Sylvan Esso, the xx and Rick Astley (no, really, we wouldn’t rickroll you!) coming across our desks. You might also notice that a few previously covered favourites have resurfaced, from the likes of Syd Arthur, Big Thief, Frightened Rabbit and Spring King. We’ve had a plethora of live gig coverage this month as well, featuring David Ramirez, LANY with Transviolet, and Kaleo with Bishop Briggs.
If you haven’t kept up with our daily features this month, you can get all caught up just by listening to the playlist below. Want more TGTF on Spotify? Subscribe to the TGTF Spotify account, by plugging “spotify:user:tgtftunes” (no quotes) into the search bar and clicking the Follow button. Happy listening!
An initially beautifully constructed and soulful offering from Staffordshire’s Laura Welsh sees heartfelt and emotive lyrics backed by a canvas of delicate and determined instrumentation. Welsh first rose to prominence after being featured on the ’50 Shades of Grey’ soundtrack, which admittedly is the perfect place for her dark and brooding sonic atmosphere. The ‘See Red’ EP opens with ‘Red’, a track which immediately demands your attention. Atmosphere is first laid out with a carefully place soft piano line. Welsh’s voice then joins the party, a dominating presence over everything, you can see why the comparisons to Florence Welch are in abundance. Once an overbearing beat kicks in, it all leads to the pre-chorus that prepares you for the song to fully take off. Spatterings of digital instrumentation flutter in and out, decorating this dark, soulful track with a lighter edge that builds an irrefutable attraction.
‘Naive’ takes on a similar build, with a large and overtly present beat pushing everything forward, while the intricate details create a conscious intrigue. Throughout the chorus, layers of Welsh’s voice serve as backing whilst the leading Welsh sits atop the orchestration with absolute ease. As she sings about “staying naive”, the nature of Welsh’s voice sharply contrasts her lyricism.
Generally there’s not much change in the rest of the proceedings, which doesn’t quite turn into a negative as the EP is only four tracks. Were the effort any longer, this would be a potential threat to its attraction and see boredom easily set in. ‘Concrete’ has a slightly increased forward-pushing beat that offers urgency to the standing Welsh puts herself in. She emotes, “tell me something new, something bold, something true, before we hit the concrete”, describing a relationship on its last legs. Were it sung with more of a pleading tone, it would have an indisputable hook. But as she doesn’t, something feels lacking here, as her delivery doesn’t partner with the rapid base beat.
Finale ‘Numb’ has the most to offer in terms of instrumentation. The basics of atmosphere and piano make an appearance again, just as they did at the beginning of the EP. But instead of leading to an erupting chorus, it merely ebbs and flows, doing its hardest to fully create the world Welsh wants you to be in. The track goes through the motions, not quite leading to a crescendo as you’d assume it would. Instead, it peters out into an atmospheric ether.
A pleasant enough offering, but when Welsh undoubtedly returns with an LP, a bit more variety and exploration would certainly help retain interest for strength that is obviously there. The basics are all here but with a voice of such power and range like Welsh’s, it’s a disservice to not take full advantage of it.
Laura Welsh’s ‘See Red’ EP is out now on her own imprint TwentyTwoSeven Recordings / Republic of Music. For more on TGTF’s coverage on Welsh, including a review of her 2015 debut album ‘Soft Control’, follow this link.
Header photo by Shervin Lainez
In a surprise appearance at SXSW 2016, American electropop duo Sylvan Esso teased an ecstatic audience with the possibility of new music before the end of the year. It turns out, the charmingly eclectic pair are as good as their word. In August, they released a new single called ‘Radio’, and last week they followed it with the b-side to the 12” vinyl release of ‘Radio’, titled ‘Kick Jump Twist’.
Sylvan Esso seems to have suffered a bit of an existential crisis in the hypnotically groovy ‘Radio’. Singer Amelia Meath mocks herself mercilessly in the second verse lines, “singin’ I’ve got the moves of a TV queen / folk girl hero in a magazine / faking the truth in a new pop song / don’t you wanna sing along?” Nick Sanborn’s trippy backbeats under the song’s chorus are so irresistibly hooky that you almost miss the derisive tone in the lyrics. “Slave to the radio / three point three-oh” apparently refers to the track’s running time, which precisely (and probably not coincidentally) fits the conventional radio-prescribed length of three minutes and thirty seconds.
B-side ‘Kick Jump Twist’ is more abstractly electronic and only slightly less lyrically sardonic than its radio-single flip. Meath’s silky vocal melody in the chorus lyric “they want all the invisible eyes on them” keeps the track musically grounded while Sanborn’s synthesised rhythms deviate from the radio-friendly path to explore broader swaths of uncharted sonic territory.
Above all else, this new double-sided single lays to rest any lingering questions about how Sylvan Esso might sustain the unusual combination of folk singer and EDM producer beyond one popular debut album. If these two new tracks are any indication, Sylvan Esso have taken a decidedly edgy and bravely expansive musical turn without abandoning the vocal lyricism and fundamental dance groove that initially charmed their audiences.
Sylvan Esso’s new double-sided single ‘Radio / Kick Jump Twist’ is available now from Loma Vista Recordings. For more on TGTF on the duo, go here.
By Mary Chang
on Tuesday, 22nd November 2016 at 12:00 pm
the xx first burst on the scene nearly a decade ago as dream pop misfits. Touring as support for their Beggars Group peers Friendly Fires, it was hard to see that superstardom loomed on the horizon for this unconventional band with complementary male and female lead vocals. Yet the music from their 2009 self-titled and Mercury Prize-winning debut album released on Young Turks proved irresistible to tv sync producers and the media alike, their songs appearing on promos for NBC’s coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the BBC’s coverage of the 2010 general election. Soon, they were selling out venues with no trouble at all, and their was on everyone’s lips.
Their sophomore album, 2012’s ‘Coexist’, garnered top marks from nearly every music review outlet across the board. Then there was a strange and unexplained silence. I’d argue that their mention in spring 2014 that they were working on album #3 was simply dangling a carrot and doing no-one any favours; to me, you’ve got new music or you don’t, don’t play with the emotions of your devoted fans. In summer 2015, their beats master Jamie Smith who is professionally known as Jamie xx released his debut album ‘In Colour’. In a surprise move, exemplary single ‘Loud Places’ and ‘SeeSaw’ from the album featured the vocals of his xx bandmate Romy Madley-Croft, who with other xx member Oliver Sim were seen posing in a photo on Instagram with Smith. Were the xx on their way back to us?
So, xx fans, you’ll be pleased to know that their third album ‘I See You’ will be released on the 13th of January 2017 on Young Turks. The week of the election, I really wasn’t in the right mindset to listen and to appropriately deliberate on the their new song to preview their new LP. A week and a half after its unveiling, I’m ready now, and I can’t help but be discoursed by what I hear. In a weird instance of art imitating life, it seems that in music that assimilation, instead of celebrating differences and pushing boundaries, is the chosen route to success.
‘On Hold’ is not about a phone conversation but a relationship that was put on the back burner, with the principals sadly finding out that love can’t thrive in a vacuum. Neglect, as some of us have learned firsthand, often strikes a bond of love stone cold dead. The best part of the song are Madley-Croft and Sim’s trademark gently competing vocals, but the painful rhymes built into this song (“when or where did we go cold / I thought I had you on hold”) are cringeworthy. The beats of Jamie xx, while fun, dance floor worthy and I guess a nice segue on from ‘In Colour’, fill up what always was welcome negative space on past xx efforts. I view this as a major misstep. The most important graphic artists of modern times weren’t afraid of negative space. They were viewed as revolutionaries because they didn’t follow everyone else. And sometimes – and especially in these volatile times – the world needs artists confident enough to go against the grain. I don’t hear anything in here that makes me go “wow!” or “that’s amazing!”
The band were the musical guests on this weekend’s Saturday Night Live; NME noted how awkward the group looked onstage at 30 Rock in their goth cowboy attire. Not exactly . Maybe their misfit personalities that we fell in love in the beginning will become more prominent on the rest of ‘I See You’? Here’s to hoping…
Stay tuned for the xx’s third album ‘I See You’, which is due for release on the 13th of January 2017. An audio stream version of ‘On Hold’, the lyrics noted in the comments in ‘screaming’ capital letters, is available below. For much more of TGTF’s coverage of the xx, use this link.
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