Glasgow four piece Sons & Daughters are certainly not a band afraid to experiment. On their early records, a combination of country guitar, bittersweet lyrics and the vocal duelling of singers Adele Bethel and Scott Paterson established them as a kind of lo-fi Scottish version of Johnny Cash and June Carter.
After a three year hiatus, 2008′s Bernard Butler-produced The Gift saw them reappear sleeker, bolder and louder with an infectious set of straightforward pop songs, strongly influenced by the classic girl groups of the 1960s. Mirror, Mirror sees them shift direction once again, this time into the realms of theatrical, minimalist gothic post-punk as they embark on what is definitely their strangest, most ambitious trip yet.
It is immediately clear the direct, tune-packed approach that made The Gift so accessible is not going to be repeated on Mirror, Mirror. Indeed, Sons & Daughters make the brave decision to open the album with arguably the starkest and most confrontational track on the whole record, as if they want to state unequivocally from the outset that their style has moved on. Beginning with a single, piercing synthesizer note and slow, ominous beats, Silver Spell unfurls menacingly into a sinister suite of anguished, primeval chanting, with Bethel and Paterson’s otherworldly voices sounding as never before.
While we don’t necessarily hear anything quite as unsettling and atonal again, Silver Spell does set the tone for what follows. The shadows of Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees loom largest, although there are also similarities to Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Zola Jesus. Musically, the emphasis is on mood rather than melody, with harsh, stabbing rhythms, throbbing electronics and searing guitar riffs creating a swirling, oppressive atmosphere. Perhaps the most powerful ingredient of all is Bethel’s voice. Whether a soft whisper or a spine chilling holler, it grabs the songs here by the scruff of the neck and drags them into some truly dark places, with Paterson’s baritone often heard in the background as a ghostly echo of the female lead.
The lyrics are also unremittingly bleak, with murder, death and the supernatural prevalent themes. The Model is a story whose subject throws herself from a balcony, Axed Actor refers to a 1950s Hollywood starlet who was found dismembered in a field, while The Beach tells of the discovery of a dead girl in the woods. In short, this isn’t a record for singing along to in the car when you’re out for a drive on a glorious summer’s day.
A painstakingly constructed and constantly challenging work, Mirror, Mirror requires considerable perseverance to allow its unorthodox appeal to slowly seep into the listener’s consciousness. Its sheer relentlessness and absence of hooks will undoubtedly deter the less adventurous, and runs the risk of alienating and confusing some of their existing fan base. Yet Bethel, Paterson and their band mates should nevertheless be applauded for refusing to stand still, and with just a little more variation in tone – it cries out for just the slightest sliver of warmth somewhere – and one or two truly exceptional, defining songs, this could have been the great record its ideas sometimes promise.
With the recent emergence of the likes of Anna Calvi and Esben And The Witch, 2011 looks like it’s shaping up to be the year of the gothic revival. Just don’t expect Sons & Daughters to still be on the bandwagon in two or three years’ time.