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Sexwitch Sand Avidar , September 24th, 2015 09:35

There are two things you need to know about Sexwitch: it's great, and it's definitely not a new Bat for Lashes album.

It can be a bit awkward when a well-known musician with a recognisable style puts out a side project like this. Are we supposed to try and divorce it from their other releases? Are we meant to pretend we don't know it's them? As Bat For Lashes, Natasha Khan has released three album, each better than the last. She's certainly not an artist with a sprawling, Aphex-style multi-monikered discography. Khan's work to date has been firmly nestled in the fantastically baroque British aether that birthed Kate Bush no less than it did Current 93. Though different, the albums have all embraced catchy but sophisticated melodies in lush, crystal-clear production, laden with pianos, strings, and off-kilter harmonies, with structures clearly rooted in pop songwriting conventions. These are the things you won't find on Sexwitch.

Beneath the willowy sheen for which her music often draws attention, Khan's work has always hid a harder spine which came to the surface on album tracks like the dark, dance-orientated urgency of 'Pearl's Dream' and the pounding tribal rush of 'Two Planets' and 'Horses Of The Sun.' On Sexwitch, this hard rhythmic spine is ripped out and set on fire: melody and harmony take a back seat to intensity and tempo.

The album opens with the slinky, slow disco burn of 'Ghoroobaa Ghashangan'. This is one of the two songs here that are most identifiably Bat For Lashes, the other being the final track; these are the two songs with the cleanest production and clearest sound. 'Ghoroobaa' rides along evenly for most of its length, with just a couple of slight starts and stops as it shifts smoothly between sections. It's the most rehearsed-sounding track, as well, by far the closest thing to a pop song to be found on Sexwitch. Much less sleek, though no less sexy, is the circular stomp of its follow-up, 'Ha Howa Ha Howa', one of two Moroccan songs on the album, both characterised by a driving, North African thump. 'He addicted me, I addicted him,' Khan chants, a lilting menace to the tune and the delivery both, as the drums and bass swirl around and around beneath her reverb-soaked vocal. Even darker is the bass-driven 'Helelyos', another circular, incantatory loop of emotive tension, punctuated with bursts of fuzzy guitars, over which Khan's muttered vocals evoke a nightmarish half-story about "dark girls setting fire to our souls." It's the only track on the album with clear vocal overdubbing, making the threat in the lyrics the grim promise of an echoing, shimmering coven (this is where the 'witch' part of the title really gets serious).

For its first three tracks, Sexwitch is exciting and sensuous but just shy of explosive. That changes dramatically on the album's last Middle Eastern excursion, 'Kassidat El Hakka', a return to Morocco and a burst of pure fire, opening on shrill, spindly guitar and a low chant that are soon joined by pounding circular drums in a dense and ominous grind. Eight minutes long and relentless in its rhythmic pulsation, 'Kassidat' is the album's heart, both in sequencing and in style: dark, propulsive, and relentless, and by far Khan's most extreme vocal work-out. The menacing tension harnessed on the earlier tracks erupts here to beautifully dramatic results. A charge sometimes leveled against Khan is that she's too restrained, as if the authenticity of a singer's delivery is contingent on a loss of control; that's definitely not a problem here. It's the most intense vocal performance she's ever released, and though perhaps surprising if you've only heard her studio album, it's less so if you've seen Khan play live over the last few years.

This explosive centrepiece is followed by 'War In Peace', the only number originally in English and not translated by Khan, and a drastic shift in style from the Middle Eastern explorations of the first tracks. 'War In Peace' is enjoyable and sultry, controlled despite being incredibly spacious, but it's also formless enough not to be permanently distinctive. The best moment comes three and a half minutes in, when the beat suddenly tightens and Khan starts emoting wordlessly in a coiled, reverb-soaked yowl for a full minute before the track stutters to a stop, but even that belated burst of intensity can't save 'War' from being largely a throwaway. The final song, 'Lam Plearn Kiew Bao', opening with an entire minute of twirling harmonium, does nothing to break the space-jam-session feel. But slower and more sensual, and with lyrics that link love to natural forces and planetary phenomena, making it, with its 3:59 running time especially, the song I would most readily identify as a Bat For Lashes b-side or demo.

After the pulsing intensity of the first four tracks, these last two are a slightly jarring change in direction and, frankly, less interesting than their predecessors, more demure outliers on an otherwise thrilling release. One can see why Khan, whose last name is Persian in origin, might have found it strategically simpler to cast a musical net beyond the Levant and include these last two numbers, hailing from the US and from Thailand, respectively. They help preempt a narrative that clumsy journalism would inevitably cast; indeed, the nominal global reach of the project is clearly emphasised in its press materials. But the tacked-on feel of these last two tracks distracts from the harmonic and rhythmic unity of the first four. A slower number or two after the crazed burn-up of 'Kassidat El Hakka' isn't a bad idea, but these two tracks, the conventionally rock psych-jam of 'War In Peace' especially, just don't quite complete the sonic narrative of the first four tracks quite the way you hope for.

There's a certain stubborn logic to this sequencing that can be appreciated; the sudden left turn fits in with the exploratory feel and nature of Sexwitch, and amps up the loose spontaneity of the other tracks to an idiosyncratic peak. It's not a bad choice, just a weaker one; two or three more long jams in a double harmonic scale would have worked just fine. But the lack of closure, like the lack of polish, is entirely characteristic of this release, which to be honest is less of an 'album' than a longish EP. It was apparently recorded in a single day, which is impressive. As word emerges that Khan is also working on the fourth Bat For Lashes LP, it remains to see if this is an isolated diversion or a herald of things to come. In either case, Sexwitch is a great ride.