Balancing the hypnotic overtones and droning repetition of krautrock with
the delicate purity of folk, Philadelphia's Espers have been making some of
fringe folk's most compelling music for some time now. With their second
full-length album, Espers bring their psyche-folk-drone to a new level of
intensity, following the path set by the wonderful Weed Tree, and
further exploring the textures that its expanded line-up permits.
group, grown from its core of Greg Weeks, Meg Baird and Brooke Sietenson,
now counts cellist Helena Espvall, drummer Otto Hauser and bass player
Chris Smith among its full-time members. The interplay, particularly of
the multiple kinds of stringed instruments, creates a hallucinatory web of
overtones and undertones, sounds that reinforce and contradict each other
in ways that are almost physically intoxicating.
The disc begins with "Dead Queen," in which high pinging space sounds
gradually give way to stately finger-picked guitar patterns interlocking
in a sort of archaic minuet. It's a bit reminiscent of "Stairway to
Heaven" at first, but gives way to something entirely different with the
vocals, the airy harmonies that coalesce around Meg Baird's crystalline
voice. During the verse, the accents in this cut are subtle the roll of
mallets on cymbals, the throb of cello in amongst guitar. At the break,
though, some three minutes in, the layers of stringed sounds are allowed to
build into a dizzying mass, an electric guitar swooping in from the corner,
gaining volume, blurring at the edges with feedback and gradually
dominating the entire fabric. Then, just as suddenly, the melody
re-emerges, its purity left mostly bare but modestly embellished with
picked guitars and sleigh bells on the offbeats.
"Dead Queen" is folk tranquility, interrupted once or twice by bouts of
frenzy. In "Widow's Weed," Espers' wilder side takes over. Like prime
vintage Pink Floyd, the cut builds foreboding textures out of long, distorted
guitar notes and ritual shuffling beats. Howls and bow scrapes and
fractured noises of indeterminate origin add to the gloom; rising
over it, Baird's voice finds an inconsolable sadness in a simple ascending
series of notes. "Cruel Storm," though paced at the same slow tempo, has a
warmer, jazzier feel, fusion-y Benson-esque guitar notes plopping like warm
rain over a laid-back beat, while "Children of Stone" billows in sweet,
tightly harmonized layers over a circling 12/8 rhythm. "Mansfield &
Cyclops" is jazz-tinged and tranquil, its abstract, nonlinear rhythms
smoothed over with intersecting guitars and zephyr-soft singing. Its whole
midsection is a complex web of instrumental improvisation, long guitar
notes hanging over the splatter-shot complexity of the drums. "Dead King,"
written as a companion piece to "Dead Queen," heads back into more
recognizable folk territories, flourishes of recorder emerging from the
crevices of its mournful melody.
The CD closes with "Moon Occults the Sun," the loveliest cut on an
exceptionally beautiful album. To me, the track, like the album itself, is
all about conjoined opposition the moon against the sun, Weeks and
Baird's very different voices joined in supernatural unity, minor-key
British folk melodies bristling with the ping and drone of Eastern
harmonies, the stillness of meditation containing wild improvisatory energy.