It has been three years since this gloomy drone-folk ensemble released their masterpiece, Espers II. Since then, many of its members have released various experimental solo works, such as Helena Espvall’s Anahita, an avant-garde exploration of ritualistic songmanship and freeform folk, and Meg Baird’s more accessible folksy debut Dear Companion. Now the Philadelphia-based sextet are offering their third full-length record entitled – surprise, surprise – III. But while the title was easy to guess, the content makes for a decidedly refreshing change.
Opening with the laidback, almost light-hearted ‘I Can’t See Clear’, III sets a very different tone to previous recordings with a newly-afforded openness that suits Baird’s otherworldly vocals, gently supporting her hushed words and drifting along quite nonchalantly. But Espers wouldn’t be Espers without lengthy distorted guitar solos and drawn out rhythms, as ‘The Road Of Golden Dust’ quickly reminds us. There’s also no other band that can pull off a theremin solo in quite the same way, as demonstrated in the ever so charming ‘Caroline’. But it’s ‘Colony’ and ‘Trollslända’ which remind most of previous Espers recordings. Both extending past the four-minute mark with dramatic instrumental layers, with Greg Weeks and Meg Baird’s vocals sneaked into the mix, almost overpowered by the arrangements, these compositions command attention.
What Espers achieve with III is a very strange balance. The songs contained within could almost be described as straightforward, were it not for the distorted guitar looming beneath the pretty vocals and timorous rhythms, hinting at the dark beast that lies underneath. It almost feels like the band have been forced to grow up, jolted out of their celestial doldrums by an indeterminate wake up call. ‘Sightings’, for example, starts out quietly, innocently even, with soft vocals wrapping themselves around acoustic guitar and bass as sliding cello lines ring through. Then suddenly a double electric guitar solo bursts into the song and disturbs the tender web of rhythms that was building up to the point where the song takes an entirely different shape.
‘Another Moon Song’ follows a similar path; it starts out softly, almost like a contrived lounge music composition, but halfway through a distorted guitar lead upsets the fragile frivolity, to the point where you forget what the song even sounded like in the first place. Although it’s all too easy to lose yourself in these songs, III never quite reaches the doomsday feel of its predecessor, and perhaps as a consequence fails to cast the listener into the same empathetic state of awe. But it is nevertheless an impressive collection of freaked-out songs and worth every minute of your attention.
UK release date: 02/11/09; www.myspace.com/espers
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