Natasha Khan – better known as Bat For Lashes – has always been one of the more adventurous spirits in British music. Despite the inevitable Kate Bush comparisons, ever since her 2006 debut Fur For Gold she has ploughed her own distinctive furrow, combining a keen melodic sensibility with atmospheric instrumentation and inventive, rhythmic arrangements.
The origins of Khan’s new Sexwitch project date back to 2013, when the Brighton-based chanteuse collaborated with Mercury Prize-nominated producer Dan Carey on a cover of Iranian pre-revolution folk song The Bride. The duo then began a quest to track down more ’70s psych and folk records from around the world and give them the same treatment, scouring the music stores of Morocco, Thailand, Iran and the USA to identify the right songs.
After translating the lyrics of their finds, which encompass everything from folklore and spirituality to love, sex and death, they went back into Carey’s South London studio to record the tracks in a single live session. At this stage the other integral element of SEXWITCH was introduced, Khan’s fellow Brighton alumni Toy, as her backing band. The four piece’s trademark sound of krautrock-influenced psychedelic rock makes them ideally suited to the swirling, hypnotic grooves of the album’s songs and their expert musicianship provides a compelling counterpoint to Khan’s ghostly vocals.
The end result is undoubtedly one of the most idiosyncratic, evocative releases of this year. Interestingly, Sexwitch opt to open the record with Ghoroobaa Ghashangan, an Iranian almost-pop song which sounds closer to a Bat For Lashes performance than what’s to follow. As the album unfolds, the listener is drawn deep into a heady brew of tribal percussion, wailing crescendos and hallucinogenic, menacing drones.
Throughout all the songs here, there is a pervading, unsettling sense of the supernatural, as if the music is being used to channel a connection with spirits from beyond the earthly realm, but also an underlying wild sensuality. This aura is borne out by the translated lyrics, which revolve around the themes of love, sex and death, usually from a female perspective. “We don’t want any strangers to come between us/our dark girls are setting fire to our souls,” Khan sings on Helelyos, while on Kassidat El Hakka she howls “When I die, I’ll go back to where I was”.
There’s little sense of Khan looking backwards on this record however, as she undergoes nothing less than a complete artistic rebirth. Arguably the absolute highlights of Sexwitch are saved for the last two tracks. Moby Grape guitarist Skip Spence’s ’60s acid freak out War And Peace, ostensibly the most conventional song choice, succeeds in retaining the frazzled West Coast vibe of the original while embedding an extra layer of ferocious intensity; with Khan alternately crooning and chanting like an otherworldly Grace Slick.
Final track Lam Plearn Kiew Bao perhaps immerses us most completely into Sexwitch’s beguilingly strange universe. This interpretation of a Thai folk song starts off with gentle tinkling keyboards before ominous stabs of echoing guitar, thunderous rolls of drums and Khan’s animalistic, trance-like singing transform the song into something akin to a shamanistic ritual. It’s a fitting end to a record unlike anything else you will hear this year.