(Nettwerk; 2008)

By David M. Goldstein | 4 June 2008

It’s summertime kiddies. Time to break out the grill, chug Pabst un-ironically, and throw on your dog-eared copy of Being There (1996). The last Fountains of Wayne record sounds more than passable when it accompanies a drive to the beach, and man, that one Gin Blossoms record with “Hey Jealousy” on it kinda rules!

So why the hell did Ladytron just put out a new record?

It’s not that Velocifero isn’t a worthy follow up to 2005 career breakthrough Witching Hour, but I’m just a bit confused because the London quartet is something of the anti-summer-fun band, bereft of warmth to the point where you’d be forgiven for thinking that vocalists Helena Marnie and Mira Aroyo were actually cyborgs. Such tendencies weren’t as overly evident on Ladytron’s first two, comparatively sunny albums, but those records were mostly hot singles and filler, custom made for runway shows and indie-goth night, if little else. Witching Hour was both a stylistic and evolutionary leap, a front-to-back album that cemented Marnie and Aroyo’s status as paranoid ice royalty and laid to rest any outmoded notions of Ladytron as a goofy electroclash outfit. Hour was also considerably bleaker than past efforts but still allowed for a few rays of shoegazerish light towards the album’s end, in addition to the Elastica-tinged party jam of “Sugar.”

If Witching Hour was “dark,” then let’s go ahead and call Velocifero “light absorbing.” Any of the levity evident on Hour is excised in favor of an hour’s worth of unrelenting synth paranoia, one hour clattering through thirteen tracks like teeth in the grip of a 48-hour coke binge. The closest Velocifero gets to a “Sugar”-like party anthem is “Burning Up,” and that song, while unquestionably catchy, smacks of desperation, detailing protest songs and cheating gravity before climaxing, “I set myself on fire without you.” For “Runaway” even Del Shannon gets the doomsday treatment, his iconic chorus flipped into something far more sinister than the man could ever have intended.

There’s no question that Velocifero doesn’t begin to approach the evolutionary leap that was Light & Magic (2002) into Witching Hour. In fact, it’s hardly inaccurate to think of Velocifero as simply a refined version of its predecessor with extra helpings of darkness, suffering a little from not being so fresh. But that’s hardly to say that its individual songs are any less excellent. First single “Ghosts” is Velocifero‘s answer to “Destroy Everything You Touch,” a sinister stone classic that would have been utterly out of this band’s reach in 2002. If “Touch” allowed the listener to imagine him/herself as a futuristic spy navigating a William Gibson novel, “Ghosts” ramps up the intensity even further, with a pummeling lock step march suggesting Marnie and Aroyo as storm troopers of the apocalypse! Pardon my excitement, but Marnie’s sing-song chorus (“There’s a ghost in me / Wants to say he’s sorry / Doesn’t mean I’m sorry”) completely sears, delivered in the text-book ice cube fashion that only Ladytron’s vocalists seem capable of. Witching Hour‘s “Fighting in Built Up Areas” provides the framework for opener “Black Cat,” an industrial dirge that once again allows Miya Aroyo to sing (speak is actually more like it) in her native Bulgarian while immediately alerting the listener that the warm fuzzies of a tune like “Seventeen” will have no place here.

Velocifero‘s flaws are mostly minor, stylistic quibbles that could be leveled at any one of Ladytron’s other three albums—namely, that each song could stand to be about thirty seconds shorter (more easily forgiven on the dance floor), and that they have a tendency to repeat the kicker far more often than necessary (same). Seriously, try doing a shot every time Helena Marnie intones “my little runaway” on the fourth track and you’ll be dead in two minutes. They also could’ve stood to trim a track or three from the album’s second half, where the songwriting starts getting a wee rote. (Try the Jokenfold trance of “Deep Blue.” Ugh.) But the Spaghetti Western closer “Versus” is arguably the strongest album ender they’ve crafted to date, containing mariachi horns and a Morricone-esque keyboard hook that you’ll be whistling for days.

Marnie and Aroyo (and the two dudes who comprise their backing band) essentially have the market cornered on this seething anti-summer stuff, though I’d imagine “Ghosts” and “Burning Up” would sound plenty bitchin’ in the throes of a violent thunderstorm. Currently, the biggest hurdle to enjoyment of Velocifero is finding an appropriate time in which to play it, because it sounds more than a little bizarre amidst sunny days and eighty-five degree weather. Give it another season, then we’ll talk.

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