Death In June – ESSENCE! CD NER 2018
Although I have kept tabs on the neo-folk scene since my obsession with it during the late ‘90s, there are few albums issued over the past decade which have captured my attention, and virtually none of the newer crop of neo-folk groups have resonated with me. Perhaps this is indicative of my listening preferences shifting elsewhere, but it is only Death In June and Of The Wand And The Moon that I have returned to with any regularity. As it has been eight long years since the last formal album Peaceful Snow was issued, the announcement of ESSENCE! caught me completely by surprise, as I was not expecting or anticipating a new album from Douglas. Yet here it is, and with promises of drawing from the true essence of Death In June.
With the short opening track Welcome To Country being a ritualistic call to arms, God A Pale Curse arrives as the first proper song and is stylistically reminiscent of the acoustic neo-folk material featured on The Rule of Thirds (complete with introductory whistling). But whereas The Rule of Thirds was significantly stripped back in instrumentation, it is immediately evident that ESSENCE! is a much fuller album featuring multiple guitar lines, layered synths, prominent counter-pointed bass guitar, and a variety of other elements depending on the track (dialogue samples, ritual chimes, abstracted guitar feedback, studio treatments, etc.). With a perhaps ‘expected’ sound showcased so early in the album, things quickly take a detour into a far wider frame of influence and inspiration, which extends to both song-writing and playing on Douglas’s behalf. The Trigger is the first example of this and has a distinctly up-beat mood, which keeps pace with a simplistic up-tempo back-beat and prominent plodding bass. The bass guitar maintains prominence in the mix on Snipers of the Maidan, with a loose ‘60s feel to its playing and slashes of guitar noise in the background that substantially deviate from that of typical neo-folk. Humble Brag further references the ‘60s era with a swagging bass line, falsetto backing vocals, and lead guitar flourishes, and when a divergent mid-track bridge and late track (studio trickery) breakdown are thrown in for good measure it amounts to the most surprising track on the album.
In shifting back to perhaps more familiar territory, Going Dark is a particular album standout, where the single piano notes, acoustic guitar, understated bass, and ritual percussion pay homage to the mood and atmosphere of classic albums like What Ends… and Rose Clouds… and include the poignant and contemplative (repeated) vocal line of: “Like a fly on the wall at my own funeral, I am free”. This is followed by another album standout The Dance of Life-To Shoot A Valkyrie, which is split into two distinct sections, the first characterized by an upfront and upbeat bass line, and the second half a more direct neo-folk piece, with the bass maintaining a plodding upbeat flair. No Belief displays yet more stylistic diversity in song-writing and playing, given it is characterised by a jangly style of guitar playing. Given that Death In June could never be accused of writing ‘happy music,’ it is only during the quite dour and moody What Will Become of Us? that it becomes apparent to how up-tempo the balance of the album is. This song in part even manages to hark back to the ‘80s sound of the group with the inclusion of stoic trumpet blasts, whip-cracks and woodblock percussion, but even then breaks new ground with two duelling and intertwining keyboard lines.
With 11 tracks spanning 45 minutes it is a brisk yet diverse album. After becoming fully acquainted with ESSENCE!, it is intriguing to hear how Douglas has pushed his song writing into newer regions, when he could have simply ‘rung in’ in a standard and perhaps ‘expected’ neo-folk album. But in drawing influences which fall well outside anything remotely neo-folk, to my ear a potential influence is Scott Walker’s ‘60s pop album Scott 4 (I am sure there are many other influences that have passed me by). In noting the wide array of unexpected aspects of this album, this may be to the chagrin of some neo-folk ‘purists’, but I am sure this would hardly be of any concern to Douglas. ESSENCE! is both an admirable and very enjoyable album, and all the more so as it manages to be a staunchly Death In June album, while also allowing Douglas to pursue new creative ends and buck any preconceived expectations in the process. Therein lies its true ‘essence’.