I confess, I wasn’t sure what to expect with The Appearances, Ester Drang’s first proper release in a dozen years. To be sure, I expected dreamy, shoegaze-y washes of sound and psych-tinged arrangements — this is Ester Drang we’re talking about after all. But that’s broad sonic territory in which to play, and previous Drang albums had all turned in variations of it; for instance, compare Goldenwest’s shimmer to Infinite Keys’ sparser, more harrowing sound.
Further complicating things for me was the fact that so many strong memories and emotions are wrapped up in those earlier albums. Goldenwest’s material made for one of the most powerful and moving concerts I’ve ever attended (their mind-blowing set at Cornerstone 2001) while Infinite Keys helped me navigate some pretty dark times in my life. So I guess you could say that I’m still trying to figure out where The Appearances fits in with the rest of the Drang’s catalog — though it definitely deserves a spot there.
Taken on its own merits, long-time fans will find plenty to be pleased with, as will those who recently discovered the band due to their recent touring with Echo and the Bunnymen. As was the case with Fine China’s Not Thrilled — another great return from a beloved Chrindie artist — the intervening years have had little-to-no effect on the band. Indeed, it’s kind of great how solid they sound despite a dozen years of absence and side-projects. If anything, their sound has become more expansive and, dare I say, heavier (no doubt due to frontman Bryce Chambers’ work with Native Lights).
This can best be heard on album highlight “On Your Way Out,” which blends the widescreen sound of classic Spiritualized with a midwestern drawl courtesy of Chamber’s lazy vocals (which have gained grit from time’s passage), some slide guitar, and even a bit of fiddle for good measure. Then there’s the band’s rollicking and raucous cover of Starflyer 59’s “2nd Space Song,” which is reason enough to spend a little extra on a physical copy of The Appearances.
To these ears, the only issue with The Appearances is that it occasionally suffers from a muddy mix (e.g., “The Union”). In those cases, the band’s dense sound becomes monolithic as the myriad sonic layers — e.g., guitars, strings, organ, vibraphone, mellotron, synths — begin to bleed together. What’s more, Chambers’ breathy vocals are left buried deeply, too.
While it’s typical of this genre to treat vocals as just another instrument in order to enhance the dreamy mood, it does mean that what he’s singing is indecipherable at times. Which is a shame, because I’ve always found his lyrics to be more thoughtful and introspective than your average shoegazer (consider Infinite Keys’ spiritual wrestling and questing) — and I’m curious to hear how a long-absent artist’s viewpoints and perspectives have evolved over time.
This might sound like faint praise but is certainly not intended as such: if you were a fan of Ester Drang back in the ‘00s, then you’re going to like The Appearances just fine. Indeed, considering the band’s devoted following, I’m certain most longtime fans won’t need any reviews to convince them to buy it. And it’ll no doubt whet their appetite for even more future endeavors from the band.
Chambers may casually drawl “It’s too late to start again,” but thankfully, that’s not the case for Ester Drang. Even a dozen years isn’t too long an exile to return from. I’m glad — as is my inner Cornerstone Festival attender — to see so many bands from the glory days of “Chrindie” music returning from their long exodus with work that deserves to be stacked up alongside the “classic” stuff.