Death and the Maiden: Wisteria (Fishrider)

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River Underground
Death and the Maiden: Wisteria (Fishrider)

While it was only right, proper and long overdue that the Apra Silver Scroll award night should be held in Dunedin in 2017 you'd have to say it made for bloody awful television.

Many of those there on the night – but by no means all from the naysaying this writer heard privately – attested to what a great night it was and -- with lashings of booze, old friends and a sense of camaraderie -- it no doubt was.

If you were there.

But it was a dull and unedifying night in front of the small screen, even for those well-disposed souls who tuned in with genuine anticipation.

Daring to say it was terrible telly on Facebook opened me up to weird and abusive comments but the least persuasive was the defense that it wasn't designed for television.

Well, if it is being televised then at some level is actually is.

And that is an undeniable fact.

It took a strong constitution, high boredom threshold and infinite patience to get through it . . . and for me things didn't bode well when right at the start the local outfit Death and The Maiden (named for the Verlaines' song, the painting, play, film or Schubert piece of that name?) delivered up aural dreariness while looking extremely earnest but as if they would have preferred being somewhere else.

So while we might pretend to be able to put aside preconceptions, I come to this second album by the trio of singer/bassist Lucinda King, guitarist/drummer/singer Hope Robertson and synth player Danny Brady (the latter two in a Snapper line-up apparently) with something perilously close to prejudice.

While I won't resile from my earlier comments, this collection leavens the overall cowl of gloom with peppery beats and ethereal washes of synths (think early Eighties) and delay, places King's often ethereal and seemingly disembodied vocals at the perfect distance between whispery up-close and somewhere in the misty forest of black and skeletal trees, deploys echo to create a kind of psyche-pop and dreamscape effect . . .

As befits their band name (and songs with titles such as River Underground, Duchess and Shadows) there is much lyrical exploration of the dark stuff, the hand holding between love and mortality.

The title track opener builds into widescreen synth-pop driven as much by the addictively repetitive bass lines, River Underground is an enjoyable slice of Goth-pop with a synth part as naggingly enjoyable as anything by Gary Numan (although more understated) while the guitar texture builds and builds, Everything is Stressful is beautifully eerie . . .

At times King has some of the languid sensuality of Vanessa Daou (Hourglass) or the coiled inner rage of Marianne Faithfull (on the emotional self-destruction in Mercury), Speed of Sound with its slashing synth beat and minimalism is a terrific piece of techno-pop with a vocal backdrop which evokes the mood on Nostromo just as the crew realise what they are in for . . .

There's a touch of humour here too (the title of Oooh Baby in the Chorus if nothing else).

Some of this brings to mind early Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark and Goth-gone-synth (hints of the Cure on the enormous and cinematic Shadows), and maybe – as with Duchess – it explores too limited a palette over the long haul: Not that long actually, nine songs in about 45 minutes.

But that takes nothing away from what is here.

This is a fine collection of assured songs and structures which are focused and economic, have a pop sensibility at their dark heart (as did Joy Division of course, hence the danceable New Order) and repay time spent.

Spectral psychedelic music where the colours are bleached out and a repeated phrase like “I'll be this forever” is as much a threat as a promise.

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