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The Sound of Your Most Darkly Enchanted Summer Never Coming to an End – Death and the Maiden’s “Wisteria”

Death and the Maiden
Fishrider / Occultation

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Surpassing yourselves on your second album, especially after your debut quietly blew people out of their seats with its entrancing, immersive darkwaving dreampop, isn’t generally done. Not just due to the too-well documented sophomore syndrome – though, indeed, that’s most often the culprit – but as well out of respect (if that’s the word and probably it shouldn’t be) for the quote-unquote formula that attracted sufficient enough attention the first time around to merit a second effort. Most likely a product of being too driven to do what they do but in any case Death and the Maiden – Lucinda King bass and vocals, Hope Robertson drums guitar vocals, Danny Brady synths and atmospheres – seem constitutionally immune to the former and effectively unconcerned by the latter.

[photo: Esta de Jong]

At once sparser and more intensely focused than their self-titled debut from 2015, Wisteria marks a refined maturation of the band’s sound and thus, it follows, their creative process. Perhaps it stems from working to some extent in isolation – the storied pop legacy their hometown of Dunedin continues to tap and build upon isn’t particularly known for its darkly sinuous, bordering-at-times-on-the-sinister contours – but the trio conjure a uniquely arresting style of melodic darkwave, one that seems on the one hand to have been, in fact, tinged and infected by all that renowned jangle seeping through the studio walls while on the other icily detached from it. The result is a curious hybrid that, it could be said, is emotionally invested in remaining at a shadowy remove. All amateur armchair analysis aside, however one quantifies their remit this album finds them all that more deeply committed to it.

From the opening title track that emerges like something subterranean come aground, accruing cell by cell in response to the open air and strange light until it’s dark enchantment made corporeal, through to “Everything is Stressful”‘s tale of desired existential negation – “What do you want to be when you grow up, she asked him / He said I want to be a color, and to grow back down” is the first stanza – lugubrious bass throb and the resigned chime-and-drone of guitar, a steady catharsis in its drawn-out crescendo, this is a forty-seven minute journey to the not-so-sunny side of the Kiwi pop street (not to deny the angst and conflict with which much of the music of the Verlaines and Bats et al is riven but you get the drift), where the presumed mitigating influence of the near-ethereal female vocal may in fact be the profoundest lure of all in Wisteria‘s pull toward the Grand Guignol’ed side of things. If, in other words, the Cocteau Twins were given a commission to soundtrack Suspiria, it would wise of them to cede the assignment to Death and the Maiden.

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To back up that rather absurdist contention, allow me to point you toward “Hourglass” where even an ostensibly summery vibe exerts a darkness, albeit one that’ll find you hypnotized wherever you’re standing. Or “River Underground,” a synth sending out a persistent low-level alarm over a walking lurking rhythm, the Durutti march of a guitar getting oddly sunnier the further underground the vocals go. Or “Duchess”‘ shuddering, cold minimal funk built inside a growing dystopia of chattering ambiance that seems to just keep closing in. Or, for matter, “Mercury,” creeping¬†and¬†elegant as it spins up a claustrophobic embrace.

Exquisitely mixed and mastered – Brady had a hand in both – Wisteria, then, could be the sound of your most darkly enchanted summer never coming to an end, where you finish the record and begin it again, finish it and begin again, and then again, and you’re eternally grateful to be lost in such a cascadingly beautiful place.

[buy Wisteria here]