Here's an album I've been looking forward to for a while. Jess by the Lake's Under the Red Light Shine was my Album of the Month a couple of years ago in June 2019 and Jess's day job is fronting Jess and the Ancient Ones, an occult rock band from Finland. I don't like this album, their fourth in a decade, as much as I liked her solo album, but I still like it rather a lot. It's acutely early seventies in nature, with a prowling bass and a cool Hammond organ but with plenty of vestiges of the psychedelia of the late sixties and, somehow, often an agreeably contemporary touch too. That's a neat trick to master.
For instance, while Jess has a huge voice and an almost unparalleled ability to go from gentle croons to wild wails in a heartbeat, she comes across initially on World Paranormal like Chrissie Hynde, as if this is a new musical departure for the Pretenders. It's poppy and it's perky and it's neatly delivered in waves, as if there's a musician somewhere on stage responsible only for tweaking an intensity dial to ramp things up or to calm them down again.
For the most part, it's very lively, because almost everything here feels like it has to be lively. In fact, it's such an up tempo album that it really takes until the intro to the eleven minute closer, Strange Earth Illusion, to really slow down and take a breath. That doesn't mean that it's all done at lightspeed, but it's always bouncy, whether it's the keyboard line on Talking Board that sounds like a spooky cartoon theme tune or the barrelling beat of Summer Tripping Man. It refuses to be ignored. If you're in a room while this is playing, and I mean any song on the album, then you're going to find yourself tapping your foot and eventually dancing around, because it's irresistible.
The band are clearly capable and I thoroughly enjoyed the sonic webs that they wove here, but Jess is the spider at the centre of all of them and she makes it crystal clear why the band's name is Jess and the Ancient Ones rather than just the Ancient Ones. The riffs blister and the keyboards swirl and the instrumental sections are great, but she's always ready to steal our attention back with a command. Her most overt showcase is on What's on Your Mind, but most of these songs feature her singing at a variety of intensity levels and always seeming to have another one ready when we think she's hit her limit.
My favourite song is Love Zombi, but I'm not sure why. It's as lively as the rest, but it has an extra je ne sais quoi that I'm still trying to figure out. Maybe it's the way that Thomas Corpse solos over the early riff. Maybe it's the playful and sassy vocal melody. Maybe it's the bass of Fast Jake that runs around in the background like a chicken with its head cut off. Maybe it's the keyboards that alternate between endearingly spooky and chiming like crystal raindrops. I think it's all of the above combining into the most effective groove on the album.
And there are a lot of effective grooves on this album, because it's built on them. Some of the songs are more traditional than others, like the opener, Burning of the Velvet Fires, which could have been a cover of something from back in the proto-metal era. Some feature neat samples, from movies like Dr. Strangelove and The Exorcist, with the clownlike laughter in Talking Board really adding character to the song. Some are more frantic than others, like Summer Tripping Man, which must be a riot live. But all of them feature effective grooves and your favourite song is likely to be whichever one has the groove that speaks to you.
It's a wildly different album to the solo Jess by the Lake release I liked so much a couple of years ago, heavier and livelier, but it's a really good one anyway. I've been playing it solidly for a couple of days and really ought to be moving on to another one. Maybe after this next listen through...