Espers III

[Drag City; 2009]

Rating: 3/5

Styles:  psych-folk
Others: Feathers, White Magic

When Espers' self-titled debut was released in 2004, their darkly experimental folk sound was in vogue. The same can't be said today, although the short-lived infatuation with this sound certainly helped to shape the direction of independent music. In some ways, it was faddish, enough that the survivors who are still eagerly followed should be considered fortunate.

Thanks in large part to their 2006 follow-up, II, Espers have remained eligible for canonization among this subgenre. It was a dramatically different beast from their debut. Looming, portentous, and heavy, the album insisted on the group's significance, not least of all because it also demonstrated improved songwriting and more complex arrangements, both deftly handled.

Now, five years later, they've successfully continued to evolve with III. Where one might expect either an expansion of the doomier tendencies of II or a falling back on the more traditional sound of Espers, the band has instead invented a new language for itself, albeit through subtle mechanisms. While much more subdued than II, that album has left their music with scorched edges that are visible with every caustic electric guitar line, funereal string section, and squelching electronic manipulation that snakes its way into the mix.

The result is not merely the mean between the two previous records, but a palpable tension between them. Nowhere is this more marked than on "The Road of Golden Dust," when an otherwise languid and cyclical drum beat is howled over with a solo that sounds out of a Roger Waters record. The mood is no less intense than on II, but it's much more covert. Part of II's success was its being couched in the safety of bombast. III manages to be equally unsettling at times, but in a calculating, surreptitious way -- abrupt vocal introductions, unexpected melodic turns, or lyrics that trail off before they seem to have finished.

Fans of the more pastoral, traditionally Brit-folk Espers shouldn't worry, however, as songs like "The Pearl" and "Trollslända" continue the breezy and ebullient atmosphere at which Espers have already proven themselves adept. Fittingly, each of these two songs, from their modest beginnings, do eventually meander into a darker place -- the former with subtlety and the latter with plain old climactic shredding.

While not as immediately enjoyable as Espers or II (depending on the audience), III proves itself to be more emotionally ambiguous, less formulaic, and more difficult to decode than either; and for that it is certainly the most interesting of the three. Although it does falter at times with a seeming complacency ("Meridian," "Colony"), it is mostly characterized by a quiet ambition. It's gutsy and its gutsiness pays off.

1. I Can't See Clear
2. The Road of Golden Dust
3. Caroline
4. The Pearl
5. That Which Darkly Thrives
6. Sightings
7. Meridian
8. Another Moon Song
9. Colony
10. Trollsländia

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