Where Espers' self-titled debut album was drenched in sunshine melodies, traditional folk influences, and psychedelic acid-folk sounds ranging from Fairport Convention and Donovan to Six Organs of Admittance and Super Furry Animals, and their creepy, apocalyptic EP -- who else would cover the Durutti Column, Nico, Michael Hurley, and the Blue Öyster Cult on the same record as a reverent version of "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair" -- neither of these offerings truly prepare the listener for II. This Philly quintet fronted by Greg Weeks, Meg Baird, and Brooke Sietinsons have gone over the edge this time while retaining just a modicum of restraint to hold all the pieces together. The proof is in the kool-aid so to speak. The opener is the sharp, gloomy, 17th century-styled Elizabethan folk of "Dead Queen," that feels more like Pentangle, and it's countered in "Widow's Weed," the very next track, by a slew of screeing electric guitars atop a snare-heavy drumkit awash in feedback that never quite lets go of the early 1800s in its melody. Here Eastern modal drone meets trad-Anglo balladry in an opium den of thieves and warriors. "Cruel Storm," uses a sparse wash of modal jazz chords to create an open-tuned dirge that floats on an augmented key elegance; it is adorned by skeletal percussion and whispering feedback in the outer reaches. Its restraint is deceptive as Baird's vocals are a bead hinting that this cruel storm is not a disaster because the disaster has already happened. There are musical hints of a sonic whiplash daring itself to reoccur in the mirror-distorted strings which cut in and out sharply from the margins as Baird sings of something out of reach but whose memory is distinct, horrific, now absent yet full of dread. The drifting psychedelic folk of "Children of Stone," suggests a dark, bleary eyed cousin to It's A Beautiful Day's "White Bird" hippie optimism. This is pushed a step in each direction in "Mansfield and Cyclops," where the repetitive Vini Reilly-styled guitars Weeks plays cancel themselves out as stray bits of 20th century West Coast strummery (think "Suite: Judy Blues Eyes"), and darkly Bert Jansch-resuscitation Steeleye Span's post-Martin Carthy experimentalism. Once more, Baird's voice (in her best Kendra Smith-kisses-Joni Mitchell mindwarp) sets a crumbling, sodden and ancient terrain to anchor to as Möebius strip basses, drums (yes, and those rubbery guitars) emboldened by myriad instruments (dumbecks, cello, an omnichord) vie for the washed-out hazy sun of nether backporch tomorrowland. In "Dead King," hints of Shirley and Dolly Collins -- sung to Helen Adam's weird, late-night gothic poetry -- and David Tibet's post-apocalyptic folkery meet the Velvets' "Venus in Furs" in the Castle Gormenghast hosted by Count Leopold von Sacher-Masoch himself. The final track, "Moon Occults the Sun," finds Weeks slowly sawing cellos, acoustic bright, rounded electrics, and droning single-string modal guitars flowing through Weeks' and Baird's voices, ushering in varying degrees of clouds, darkness, and the spirit of black night itself. Once more, one can hear the Velvets creeping through the underbrush, but they're not the only ones -- here is where Comus and Fresh Maggots offer their blunted blades, black with mud and mercury under a sky where the moon has turned to blood. Dumbek is a Doric transistorized organ, here fuzzed-out over intensifying guitars and doggedly persistent basses carrying forth the banner of a folk music that never existed for any folk at all, but merely as the face of their fears. (If "Cortez the Killer" had been composed by a court minstrel's band instead of a raggedy-ass, wasted Neil Young, it might have sounded like this.) All of these songs are sure to be long-ranging from just over five to nearly nine minutes -- but it's what gives Espers the chance not only to seamlessly blend their many influences -- it isn't their fault all this stuff had been done before -- but to create a kind of ancient-to-modern blend of Anglo song that points to a murky future while erasing an even sketchier past. Espers II is both wondrous and troubling.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek