Ladytron has always been a catchy band. They’ve always been a good band. Hell, they’ve even taken their identifiable influences and filtered them into a sound that was unmistakably theirs. I, for one, was hooked by their sophomore album, Light & Magic and its danceable new wave charms. Still, that record was far from perfect, dismissed by some as too cold and robotic, which is a fair assessment. If Kraftwerk’s robots had attempted to make a Depeche Mode album, it may have sounded something like that. Being cold and robotic, unfortunately, comes with the territory for synth-pop bands (i.e. Gary Numan, Human League, Kraftwerk), and Ladytron made the best of it for two albums. On album number three, however, the band sheds some of their robotic tendencies, though the album is still essentially synth-based. But it is anything but warm. Digging deeper into dark textures and chillier sounds, The Witching Hour finds Ladytron sounding more human, at the expense of a little sunshine.
On the surface, not that much sounds all that different than it did before. The songs are still heavily washed in synthesizers. The melodies are still as catchy as they’ve ever been. But the songs this time around sound fuller, louder and darker. Helen Marnie’s vocals phase in and out of passionate and detached, collected and paranoid, ultimately pushing the band further into organic territory. But the addition of more guitars, throbbing bass and the occasional live drums actually make them sound like more of a menacing, pulsating organism, or, at the very least, a “rock” band.
Never has the band sounded as fierce as they do on “High Rise,” a song that finds Marnie spouting apocalyptic images in what is, essentially, a love song:
We are on the same high, you and I
Open on the same page, no sunrise
First single “Destroy Everything You Touch” takes the best elements of the band, polishes them and compacts them into a denser, dare I say it, perfect form. The song is strikingly similar to Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” due to a similar beat and some slight, subtle touches. But where that song was more of a combination of rock guitars and atmospheric synthesizers, this is a heavy, pounding dance pop song, with a destructive onslaught of electronics.
The band doesn’t consistently pummel you, however, and that’s a good thing. Those first two songs are quite exhausting, and the melancholy “International Dateline,” while still catchy and danceable, is more open and spacey, opting for grace and beauty over impact. Marnie’s voice reaches new heights during the chorus, cooing “let’s end it here” in heartfelt desperation. As much as I liked Light & Magic, I could hardly think of one song that even comes close to that emotional high. “Sugar,” meanwhile ups the tempo and volume once again, its noisy guitars and pounding rhythm owing more to Curve than Kraftwerk.
Marnie’s counterpart, Mira Aroyo, has a less prominent vocal presence on The Witching Hour, but when she is handed the mic, she makes it count. Her spoken word delivery on “Fighting in Built Up Areas” is downright terrifying, bringing to mind some of Wire’s weirder tracks from 154. And her detached, sexy vocals guide the dark indie pop of “AMTV” wonderfully. Nonetheless, Marnie’s lead is a strong and flawless one, driving gems like “Last One Standing” and “Beauty*2” gracefully and powerfully.
A bigger budget from a bigger label may be partly to thank for Ladytron’s fuller, more impressive sound. But ultimately, it’s safe to say the band has grown artistically, catalyzing their creative energy into a diverse, yet cohesive collection of songs that is easily the band’s best. With songs this good, nothing could possibly be standing in Ladytron’s way.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.