Espers are placed right at the very centre of Neu-folk or the new weird American movement. They featured on the Rosetta Stone of the scene, Devendra Banhart‘s compilation The Golden Apples Of The Sun. Along with the likes of Six Organs Of Admittance, Vetiver and Sunburned Hand Of Man they are drinking from the well of folk music while mainlining The Velvet Underground and The Grateful Dead.
Espers’ outsider take on the British Folk tradition allows them to stray a little further away from the musical straitjacket that otherwise might be imposed on them. Yet the major problem with Espers II is that they never stray that far into the backwoods. The music lacks the dense explosive sound of Sunburned Hand Of Man or the stripped down menace of Jackie-O MotherFucker. For such an ‘out there’ form of music the songs collected here are strangely conservative.
The opening Dead Queen highlights the problems of the whole collection. It starts with a melody and arrangement that would not sound out of place in the Lord Of The Rings, being a kind of Middle Earth mood music. The introduction of the vocals only increases the feeling that this is Enya for English Undergraduates, a blend of mysticism and pretty tunes with a pristine production job.
It’s an old musical form that has been needlessly buffed up for a new century. Over eight long minutes the chords repeat a short sequence as a guitar uncoils soft waves of distortion that neither burn or blacken the mood. This is feedback as background noise.
Cruel Storm is constructed around an acoustic guitar figure, and those breathy high vocal tones. The vocals are as clear as the view from Glastonbury Tor on a spring morning but they lack emotion and grit. The drums drop in and out of the mix and there is a gentle slow paced electronic humming in the back ground. It’s a pity that the hum never develops enough to provide an ominous counterpoint to the overt prettiness of the music.
The highpoint is Mansfield And Cyclops when the band finally lock into a primal rhythm that elevates the song onto a higher plane, leading to a real sense of tension and release. The bass guitar and bleeping guitars are woven together in wonderful mesh of noise and melody. Even the vocals sit well in the mix, not overpowering the music.
The band seem to be far too familiar with the sonic designs of The Incredible String Band and Comus. Espers II sounds more like a lovelorn impersonation of the music than a radical exploration of its possibilities. The blend of folky structures and psychedelic drones are nothing new.
Admittedly, Greg Weeks adds a little electronic murmur here and a touch of guitar distortion there but there are no fractures, no implosions, no attempts to reach for the motherlode. The songs lack the surprise and outright oddness of the The Animal Collective. The song titles even read like a set of tarot cards from a roadside gypsy – Dead Queen, Widow’s Weed, Cruel Storm, Children Of Stone, Moon Occults the Sun, if you never believed in any of that stuff you certainly don’t need a soundtrack for it.