In pop folklore, bands were allowed three LPs to become themselves, yet the fabled third album is an increasing rarity in this low attention span epoch.
So it comes as a bit of a rare treat to find that Liverpool-based boy / girl four-piece Ladytron have reached this mythical milestone with 'Witching Hour', their best album yet, and one that still fizzes and sparks with the band's own idiosyncratic charms.
Yet 'Witching Hour' is an album that reaches further than it's predecessors; warm and dense, there is a feeling of susceptible magic wrapped within it's thirteen tracks - Ladytron have finally been allowed the grace to become themselves. It's the first to give a truly rounded insight into what Helen Marnie, Mira Aroyo, Daniel Hunt and Reuben Wu, are all about. They can still make music starched and synthetic, cool and collected, but, unlike it's predecessors '604' and 'Light & Magic', at its core 'Witching Hour' is wild and unstable; a synth-pop record which rages with a new unbridled energy.
Their critically lauded 2001 debut '604' album spawned a glut of imitators obsessing over vintage synths and asymmetric haircuts, yet Ladytron always stood apart, less concerned with the superficial. Their darker late 2002 release 'Light & Magic' featuring the worldwide cult hit 'Seventeen', was toured around the globe for 12 months, selling out coast to coast in the US along the way. Returning home, they started work immediately on their new record, but spent 2004 oscillating wildly while their UK and US record labels imploded, before signing to Island Records and completing the LP in 2005. In the interim they travelled, wrote, honed and perfected.
From the euro daydreaming of '604', to the Los Angeles recorded 'Light & Magic', Ladytron?s output has often been something of a travelogue. But since L&M, their travels have broadened the group beyond the aspirational nature of their earlier work. Tours to Argentina, Brazil and China, Mira heading back to her native Bulgaria, Reuben to Hong Kong and Daniel now living between Liverpool and Milan have added an extra dimension to their influences and a greater awareness of home.
There may be shoegazy shades of Young Marble Giants, early Stereolab and the Cocteau Twins within the new album, yet the references remain oblique rather than obvious and it's as much their development as a live band as their previous studio albums that informs the feel and swirling atmospheres of Witching Hour. It is the sound of an electronic band rediscovering their leftfield indie roots, experimenting, enlarging their palette of sound. And assisted in their sonic exploration by producer Jim Abbiss (DJ Shadow, Placebo, Kasabian) - sounding all the better for it.
The period since their last album has seen them mature from being a group finding their feet with both voices and instruments to a group who have learned to craft a hook drenched pop music that lurches from one trip to another often in the same song. Ladytron have stood their ground in a market saturated with wannabes and also-rans, they have become familiar with every aspect of what they do.
Avoidance of the generic, has been crucial all along: "We've never been interested in being a trad. anything," insists Mira. "Everything is done our own way. I've always been into Krautrock bands like Neu! and Can, and I love the fact that I can't really tell what instruments they used. It doesn't really matter."
Indeed, the beauty of 'Witching Hour' is not in guessing what instrument made which sound, it is in marvelling at how Ladytron have produced such a striking set of pop songs. The brutal synthdriven, "hedonistic nursery rhyme" 'Sugar', the effortless 'Destroy Everything You Touch' and 'High Rise' are as strident as 'Seventeen', but come wreathed in twisted, snarling, intoxicating FX. A synth drenched sensateria, the albums centre-piece is probably 'Soft Power' from which the albums title is derived: an overdriven electronic pulse, married with an atmosphere reminiscent of early Kate Bush, its counterpoint 'Fighting In Built Up Areas' is the ultimate Bulgarian industrial dance track.
There is a production that utilises a forceful dynamic that resonates with the great works of pioneers like Martins Rushent and Hannett. Most acts would kill for a truly muscular, powerful sound, (this album has several) most put their destiny in the hands of people who hardly know them as humans let alone musicians. What Ladytron have and what they have achieved here- is a perfect understanding of their influences, where they are coming from and where they want to be.
Few of their contemporaries have that grasp of sonic annihilation, that capability to blow your head aside even at the lowest of volumes. Ladytron can do this with ease, that ability comes with having things your own way, so there is nobody to make unreasonable demands of your art. This is the sound of no compromise, spectral, other-worldly music that will reverberate through your head long after tonight is all over.
There's a killer ballad, 'Beauty Two', a perfect (neo-gothic Northern Soul) pop song, 'International Dateline', and even one track, 'Last One Standing', which lays claim to a mutated Lee Hazelwood heritage. A similar restlessness and melancholy informs seismic processed rocker 'Weekend' - wherein Ladytron seemingly return to a favourite theme; the decadent escapism of the discotheque juxtaposed with a bedsit reality.
The tearful, nightmarish tone of the rest of the album is harder to pinpoint. The beautiful 'International Dateline' is a case in point. It sashays along on a neo-Northern beat, has hooks to spare, but those words...
"Woke up in the evening, to the sound of screaming," sings Helen, sweetly froze in fear. "Through the walls it was bleeding... all over me."
Ladytron never explain, but, they recognise that 'Witching Hour', with its ghosts, eerie imagery and its "daylight is the enemy" proclamations, is their darkest record to date. Even if they don't always know why. Says Mira, smiling wryly, "happy songs never made me happy. A lot of sad songs have"
If 'Witching Hour' is dark it is also, more importantly, a deeply emotional experience. "The idea that we're cold and detached," says Helen "couldn't be further from the truth. Album closer 'All The Way' is arguably the best thing they have recorded, spectral and a beautiful song, like a half-remembered moment from the lost in translation soundtrack.
Such moments are everywhere; a general disquiet, the fraught atmosphere of 'International Dateline', the yearning vulnerability of 'Beauty Two' or the barely suppressed anger of 'Destroy Everything You Touch'
It is serenely beautiful at times and noisy and disturbing at others; just like all the best records should be. This is a collection of songs that will cool you down in the summer and keep you warm in those dark winter months.
Ladytron just fulfilled their potential. Prepare to fall in love with them all over again.