uch is the evocativeness of Espers' second album that I feel as if I should write about my experiences listening to it while picnicking in the King's Woods, prancing across the greensward, or sipping mulled cider behind castle walls. But it's 2006, and I've mostly listened to it in my cubicle at work. Besides, despite the strong whiff of Ye Olde Renaissance Faire coming from II during initial plays, Espers' genius lies in making music that feels both archaic and timeless simultaneously.
“Dead Queen” begins the album with vaguely medieval sounding acoustic guitar, tambourine, and female vocals, but also crystalline production that appears as if the pastoral setting Espers summon to mind exists on a spaceship. By the end, the droning instrument that arises (an electric harpsichord, maybe?) has taken the track somewhere entirely new. “Widow's Weed” launches into a fairly conventional modern psychedelic rock opening, but once Meg Baird starts singing in her slightly angelic voice you're ushered back to the same calm, reflective atmosphere as the beginning of “Dead Queen,” There's a measured, oddly reassuring air to all of the performances here, even at the height of their bad trip-evoking powers, such as the end of the new version of “Dead King,” which originally appeared on their covers-heavy The Weed Tree EP.
There's also an overwhelmingly melancholy, valedictory feel to II. Naturally enough “Dead King” and “Dead Queen” are songs for a wake, but so is “Cruel Storm,” and even “Widow's Weed” and “Children of Stone” are immensely foreboding despite the sweet harmonizing of Baird and Greg Weeks on the latter. Only “Mansfield and Cyclops” escapes the funeral air of the rest of the album (and that serves more as a pause between two of the more intense songs here than anything else). All seven songs are lengthy; absent the more interesting touches Espers bring to bear you'd have a lugubrious, almost Zen set of archaic folk music that would be as likely to put you to a restful sleep as make you listen closer. But the drones and guitars keep surfacing during the songs, as if they were eating them from inside out: The second half of “Dead Queen” is the group playing some hot-shit metal solo at a tenth speed until the guitar(?) comes unstuck and melts all over the song. The end of “Moon Occults the Sun” has hand percussion and what might be some sort of a primitive keyboard trying to grind itself to death at the same time. “Children of Stone” may be the most conventionally pleasing track here, but even it boasts the kind of keening high tone in the background that sounds like a sickly bagpipe.
The biggest testament to II's success is that this all feels naturally fitting, elements taken from the worlds of sludge and noise fitting in perfectly with the pretty vocals and folk tropes. It's not as if the band's disparate sources haven't been assembled before (e.g. the recently reissued Comus records), but they've rarely been assembled this skillfully. One of the corollaries of the old “mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal” chestnut is that really great artists not only steal but make you completely forget that fact.
There are shocks to the system hidden within II, but they're so pleasingly cushioned you never notice until afterwards. It’s an album that leaves you both soothed and disturbed, lulled and shaken by the group’s masterful blend of the comforting and the uncanny, slightly dazed as if returning from time travel or a knock on the head.