Philly collective Espers, through no fault of their own, have arrived with their eponymously titled debut at an odd time. A fusion of English folk traditions and something rather more modernist and psychedelic, their music crowds onto a platform that seemingly everyone is experimenting with just now – and the original exponents of such atmospherics are showing signs of their own comebacks.
Of the many and varied bands currently embracing what might lazily be termed nu-folk, Morcheeba have been amongst the most surprising. Their last album slewed towards the sound of the Dark Ages in places, surprising with its fusion of precise digital instrumentation, electronic beats and folksy sounds and songwriting. Elsewhere, Fairport Convention and Pentangle are still showing their own innovative signs of musical experimentation.
Espers, with flutes, pipes, acoustic guitar rounds and swirly vocal duets wrapped in a trippy ball of echoing, out-there production, eschew the beats of the likes of Morcheeba in favour of a marriage between a similar sounding and deeply rooted folk tradition and a more modern production element. They just take it further left of pop.
But first, the track listing – which causes raised eyebrows. Titles like Flowery Noontide, Hearts & Daggers and, especially, Byss & Abyss may suggest different things to different people. To one side, a soundtrack to a medieval jousting match. To the other, music to munch mushrooms to. So far so intriguing.
And what unfolds over 40 minutes – that seem longer – is intriguing, and has more to it than rehashed folk music. Greg Weeks and his players sound less like Morcheeba or even the long list of bands they’ve toured with, headed by Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective than they do the defunct Whistler. The first track is an imaginative feast of mildly eerie Pentanglesque folk with shimmery sounds backing a basic round of guitar and woodland noises straight out of Domesday.
But what follows offers little change in pace (or key) from track to track. While each piece is as intricately constructed a study of essentially English folk music as one could wish for, there is precious little differentiation between them, and in consequence they fail to individually lodge in the memory.
An album this quiet, this rural, also suggests that talking at the bar would be very frowned upon during their live sets, while dancing – around maypoles or otherwise – would be quite out of the question. Instead, this is the soundtrack to a walk in the woods.