The seven long tracks on this second full-length effort from the Philadelphian psychedelic folk-rockersform a satisfying whole, one whose roots burrow back into the late Sixties mystic-mythic mulch that fed Fairport Convention, Pentangle and The Incredible String Band. With titles such as "Dead Queen", "Widow's Weed" and "Dead King", the album is clearly preoccupied with mortality - if the "Cruel Storm" in the track of that title isn't the exact one that carried off Lord Franklin, it's at least a distant ripple from the wave that took him down.
The eight-minute "Dead Queen" that opens proceedings is typical: taken at a suitably funereal tread, it begins with acoustic guitar picking, around which are wrapped eerie tendrils of electronic tones as Meg Baird starts to sing with the stark purity of Pentangle's Jacqui McShee. Multitracked cello lends an antique drone texture, before Greg Weeks adds a slow lead guitar line that burns through the track like acid. Somewhere along the way, you realise that an electric harpsichord has been added to the mix, crystallising a dense, complex texture that has utterly absorbed the song. It's like wandering around the edge of a forest and suddenly realising you've strayed deep into its darkest, lushest regions, with no clear idea which way is out.
The same formula is followed on most tracks, with maybe flute or some double-reed instrument (shawm?) adding counterpoint, as on the nine-minute "Children of Stone", where Baird and Weeks' voices combine in stately harmony. The slow pace, skirling textures and angelic harmonies recall the indie trio Low, whose music likewise seems infused with a heightened sense of death. Elsewhere, drummer Otto Hauser is the star on the re-recorded version of their debut album's "Dead King", creating a highly descriptive percussion bed to which sleigh bells lend a mordant touch, alongside the shivering violin.
Over the album, the impression is of being swept up in some rustic Wicker Man procession, a pagan celebration of the ever-turning wheel of life, climaxing with "Moon Occults the Sun", where we learn that "Moon occults the sun/ All will be one in time/ When darkness comes/ All will be ours forever".
But Espers aren't simply emulating old ways, having managed to successfully integrate not just electric guitar and keyboards but also electronic synthesiser tones into folk music without betraying the form's essential magic. The result is perhaps the most potent resuscitation so far of a form that never completely dies, but lies dormant beneath the surface of popular culture.
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