In eight years, over the course of four albums, Ladytron has slowly evolved from a quirky and fun synth-pop act into a full-blown rock band. From their early singles “Playgirl” and “Discotraxx,” the Liverpool group had shown an undeniable knack for melody, and also the potential to grow their sound into a muscular, yet sleek and sexy, monster. On 2005′s Witching Hour, this idea came to fruition, as the band intensified their (live) beats, cranked up the distortion and took a step toward the darker side of their theatrical new wave. The combo punch of “High Rise” and “Destroy Everything You Touch” alone was enough to knock the most cynical listeners flat.
Were Ladytron to continue their evolution away from ’80s-inspired pop and toward heavier rock textures, however, they would risk losing the qualities that made them special. As “distant” as some may have initially called 604 and Light & Magic, those two albums have stood up remarkably well over time, and have yielded some of the most clever and tuneful songs of the decade, not to mention an aesthetic that a large cult following have come to embrace. It’s unlikely that anyone was truly worried about Ladytron turning into Ministry, or that they actually would, but fourth album Velocifero offers reassurance that, after reaching a new plateau in volume and creativity, Ladytron are merely offering a set of wonderful songs rather than dramatic shifts in style.
With “Black Cat,” one is welcomed back into the familiar realm of Ladytron’s dark and devastating electro, with a familiar yet massive sound. Multi-lingual co-frontwoman Mira Aroyo is at the helm with lyrics in an exotic tongue, yet instead of Bulgarian, in which she’s often sung, it’s Portuguese. Outstanding single “Ghosts” is one track in which Ladytron offers up a playful experiment, notably a glam rock track that’s a bit Bolan and a bit “Personal Jesus.” Even with its grit and its swagger, Helen Marnie still sounds sweetly vampish, confessing “there’s a ghost in me that wants to say I’m sorry/ doesn’t mean I’m sorry.” Big beats and bigger synths drive “I’m Not Scared” and “Runaway,” two tracks which could have been comfortably at home on Witching Hour. Yet “Season of Illusions” descends into a darker, slightly ethereal goth sound while sacrificing nothing in the way of accessibility.
Familiar though “Burning Up” may be (it does seem slightly reminiscent of “Destroy Everything You Touch”), it’s one of the strongest here, hook-wise. When Helen Marnie sings “I set myself on fire without you,” sexy and sublime are perfectly combined in that brief moment, though the rest of the song is pretty great as well. The atmospheric, almost Beatlesque “Kletva” is a welcome break from the big walls of synth, though their return in “They Gave You a Heart, They Gave You a Name” is sufficiently kickass. “Predict the Day” is both spacious and abrasive, while “The Lovers” is even a bit soulful, in an apocalyptic laser show kind of way. With “Tomorrow,” Ladytron even offers their joyous, soaring single of the summer (were it actually a single and it will be, I can almost guarantee that) with a New Order-like sound that not only sounds glorious as a standalone track, but also makes for a brilliant climax.
That there are few immense sonic surprises on Velocifero doesn’t mean that there aren’t any. The deeper one listens, the more apparent it is that Ladytron have broadened their palette in subtler ways. Those already enamored of their icy cool synth pop tones should take to this one pretty quickly, but even more casual listeners will find that beneath the cracked LCD, there’s an enduring muscle and an ever-growing heart.