This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s winter 2010 issue.
A few years ago, just about any small-label act playing acoustic instruments was suddenly called “freak folk,” whether or not there was anything freaky about the music. Espers really lived up to the description, though, and the band still does on this third full-length album. What makes Espers freaky isn’t the fact these Philadelphia musicians look like hippies and pose for photographs in front of gnarly old trees (although they do). Rather, it’s the band’s distinctive combination of medieval melodies and harmonies with contemporary sounds like the buzzing electric guitars and synthesizers. This psychedelic Renaissance fair vibe is not completely new, having been tried in the late ’60s by bands such as Pentangle, but it sounds fresh and, yes, freaky when Espers do it. After creating some dense layers on its second album in 2006, II, Espers goes for a slightly lighter mix on III. Greg Weeks’ piercing guitar stands out this time as the lead instrument, drilling away at the melodies. Arpeggios on acoustic guitar provide the framework for these songs, while violins and Mellotrons swoop in for dramatic effect. As precise as the musicians are, they almost manage to swing on the faster songs. Weeks and Meg Baird share lead vocals, both of them achieving that floating-in-the-clouds quality of English folk-rock like Fairport Convention. This working title of III was Colony, and the band says the songs were inspired by Werner Herzog’s film Aguirre, the Wrath of God and other tales of colonial conquest and jungle ceremonies. The connections between the lyrics and this subject matter are unclear, but this album certainly inspires mental images of mysterious rituals.