Doldrums - Esc

by Joseph Majsterski Rating:6 Release Date:2017-06-30

It's been two years since Airick Woodhead, working as Doldrums, put out his last album, The Air Conditioned Nightmare, a somewhat lackluster follow-up to his excellent debut, Lesser Evil. Woodhead clearly has a strong desire to experiment, and has achieved mixed results, with some of his attempts coming out brilliantly, and others just confusing (or worse, boring) the ears. His third album, Esc, falls somewhere between the previous two. He's learning, but still rambles around wildly to the detriment of some songs.

To be blunt, this album is just fucking weird. It's constantly subverting expectations, and stubbornly refuses to settle into predictability. At every turn, there's something new happening. My initial thought when listening to the album was that it was going to be post-industrial darkwave. Shortly after that, I thought, aha, this is that more modern and slippery genre, witch house. And perhaps both of those things are true, in places. But the album just slips and slides all over the place. Interestingly, having been listening to this alongside some old Psychic TV albums, it seems like that may have been an influence, with both the inscrutability and even the vocal stylings. There's also a big dollop of Euro electro-experimentalism, in the vein of groups like gusgus and Lamb.

The lead track, 'Epilogue', sets the stage, both with its backwards naming and its experimental assemblage of oddities. There are some vaguely stringlike waves passing through, something that might be a looped tape going backwards, and an intermittent quacking type of sound. It's like a ship passing through a foggy night and powered by an accordion steam engine running on low. The next couple tracks are relatively straightforward. 'Perv' leads with a snappy synth and Airick Woodhead's androgynous vocals. There's a moody, almost meditative sense to the song as it ruminates. 'Runnerup' is a true highlight, with another pensive melody piloting the track, and wonderfully skittering percussion giving the song some pep, and balancing out Woodhead's languid singing. While the song mostly plays it straight, he can't resist throwing in a couple rounds of twisted up vocal distortions to keep you guessing.

Not only is the music bizarre, but the lyrics too are decidedly off-kilter. For example in 'Heater', when I first heard the track, I assumed she was singing "I'll be your hero." Nope. Instead, she's singing, "I'll be your heater. I'll be your radiator." Which is an entirely different sensibility, and one I can get behind, when it comes down to it. Then there's stuff like 'The Stitched Together Man', which starts out noisy and works its way up to something akin to a computerized primal scream, and 'Swim', which sounds like the ritual song of a post-apocalyptic tribe of mutants. 'Against the Glass' is like angels crashing giant pieces of factory machinery into each other.

A few tracks are relatively coherent. 'Limerence (We Come in Pieces)' is the absolute standout of the album. With its twinkling synth melody, pulsing bass, and legitimate percussive grooves, along with essentially normal singing, it's the best example of everything just falling into place.  But the dancefloor, and even radio friendly nature of this song makes it the exception. 'Machine Boi' feels like a late nite Euro-club track, with pulsing, spacious pads and pitter patter beats, and 'Okay' is like a sleazy electro-lounge semi-yacht rock throwback, something you might hear at a 80s beach party being performed by The Knife.

So once again, Doldrums is all over the map, dabbling in a bunch of different genres and playing around with mash-ups. It's clear Woodhead has a lot going on in his head, and wants to try a little of everything. In this case, the oddball combinations work more than they fail, but you still get the sense that his reach slightly exceeds his grasp.

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