aking their stylish electro at the fringes of commercial success has been good for Ladytron artistically. They make music that’s both aware of what’s hip and popular while seemingly not giving a damn about what either camp would think. The sound of Witching Hour is only a very slight mutation from what was found on their near-breakthrough, 2002’s Light and Magic. Teaser single “Sugar” may have hinted at a more abrasive, aggressive sound, but generally, it can be considered as a more sonically filled-out version of what they’ve done before. Soundscapes are that little bit deeper, melodies are that little bit catchier—though there is admittedly nothing here as irresistible and insistent as “Seventeen”—and the top 40 is getting ever, ever closer.
The more traditionally Ladytron-sounding second single, “Destroy Everything You Touch,” still sounds like a fantastic alternative-universe top 10 smash, despite it actually charting at number 42. It still seems the aural equivalent of a very focused laser beam that could cut through diamonds, but with a fantastically catchy, eerie melody bolted on. It’s also a better indication of what’s on offer here as far as the general mood goes. But where “Destroy” is them revisiting past glories, many of these tracks hint at new influences and new directions, often with success.
“Soft Power” is perhaps the track on which they go the furthest in building on their sound; the album’s title is a lyric from the song, and the mix of a sleazy synth-bass, a strange countermelody which might be a treated guitar if it isn’t a synth, and some breathy, exceedingly creepy, almost Gothic backing vocals, making it the densest thing they’ve ever done—and they remembered to put a tune in there, too. “All The Way” shows it as no fluke; while it’s slightly sparser, it has the same slightly spooked haze, Helena Marnie’s vocals becoming ever so slightly louder and more panicked before getting out of the way for a shimmering denouement, making it the best closing track they’ve done.
The developments and refinements aren’t limited simply to getting louder or more complex, though. “Fighting In Built Up Areas” either invents or revives the genre of industrial synth-rock, with a tough, stuttering beat, some very creepy breathy backing vocals breaking through the mix between Mira Aroyo’s Bulgarian spoken-word lyrics to quite unsettling effect. It’s followed incongruously but effectively by “Beauty*2,” which may be the most straightforward pop song they’ve ever done, though it’s far from straightforward structurally. It boasts an immaculate electronic fog around it not a million miles from some of the more commercially successful electro-influenced chart singles of recent times, and quite a few steps above Goldfrapp, if only for the surprisingly heartfelt vocal performance—quite at odds with much of the rest of their output—and the vocal/backing vocal interplay, which makes it sound almost yearning, while still not sounding overwrought so as detract from the atmospherics.
The minimalism of “International Dateline” hits a strangely sour note near the beginning, sounding almost like a rearranged rock song, with its ominous, spacy backdrop seeming a little tacked on. It’s not bad by any standard, but amid some of these multilayered, more melodically realised songs, it sounds a touch out of place. More successful is the virtually indie jangle of “Last One Standing,” which gains additional points for mixing a cold synth line with the warm tinkling of a bell. Likewise, the gauzy textures of “White Light Generation” belie a strong and heretofore unrealised Curve influence, and it’s a direction Ladytron could pursue in the future with success; everything from their songwriting style to their deadpan-meets-pop vocals seems tailor-made to electro-cum-shoegaze melds like this.
Those who have loved Ladytron’s move toward a mix of harsher electro and lighter pop elements will find this a welcome progression, and seemingly a natural one, too. The momentum and interest level is kept high and sustained. If there’s a criticism, it may be that they seem to have given up the search for that one singular distillation of their sound that will break them commercially. But if relative obscurity continues to be this fruitful, it’s doubtful that anyone will mind.
Reviewed by: Edward Oculicz
Reviewed on: 2005-10-14