In Conversation is a feature in which the senior staff talk about a record we’ve been listening to. Not exactly a review, it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: two music nerds having a conversation about an album with all the tangential nonsense, philosophical wanking, and hopefully insightful commentary that implies. Five years on from the stellar Take Cair Paramour, it’s time to see what Ashbury Heights have been up to…
The Looking Glass Society
Out Of Line
Alex: Man, things done changed since the release of Ashbury Heights’ 2010 masterpiece Take Cair Paramour. Folks who have followed this site for ages may know that it was our mutual favourite record of that year (the year before we started ID:UD, natch), almost in defiance of the fact that we were both pretty burnt out on club oriented scene music. I think what made Ashbury Heights really special was that Anders’ songwriting and pop arrangement skills were always so on point. The guy has always displayed an amazing grasp of how to build fun, catchy songs. Now my understanding from a lot of the information flying around at the time that record was released was that the band and Out of Line had a fairly major disagreement about the sound of the record (in fact I believe Anders said in some interview that he didn’t like the way it came out at all), and consequently the project split up. Fences got mended at some point thereafter, but it’s been a half decade between that record and The Looking Glass Society, and I’ve been kind of wondering how new material from them would sound to my ears given five or so years.
Hey, turns out I really missed them without even really realizing it. And to boot, they fit in really well with the current mode of actual literal on-the-radio pop music, which has been taking a couple cues from dark electronic music for a minute now. It could be that we’ve seen a lot of bands try to tap into that zeitgeist that with varying levels of success, but hot damn do Anders and his new collaborator Tea understand exactly how to make gothy electropop that sounds really contemporary. It’s almost like the world caught up to Ashbury Heights if you follow me.
Bruce: I hear that. If I’m remembering correctly, the scuttlebutt at the time of Paramour was that it had gone poppier than Anders would have liked at the label’s behest. Although I can definitely see how that record might’ve pushed some folks’ limits as far as on the nose production and melodies went, the songcraft you point to was always kept on lock (I find Anders always finds fascinating subjects for songs, something we’ll probably get to later). Even at its most brazen, like the Pet Shop Boys synth-brass on “Unbearable Beauty”, it seemed to fit in quite well with how bright ‘dark’ clubs were at the time. Fast forwarding five years, yes, the whole thing’s flip-flopped. Dark electronic production has infiltrated just about every corner of the pop, hip-hop, and rock worlds, and a not insignificant number of producers who’ve relied on traditionally ‘dark’ sounds for spooktacular effect are finding themselves hard pressed to point to what distinguishes them from the sounds pouring out from the biggest EDM clubs.
That’s a quandary Anders Hagström doesn’t have to deal with. Bands as diverse as The Birthday Massacre and Suspiria have managed to compound the dreamy gothic drama their aesthetics connote by integrating disco and pop foundations, but I don’t know that either can boast the discography Ashbury Heights now carries in terms of dance floor murderers or affecting songwriting. How does Looking Glass Society work for you in terms of bridging pop and ‘dark’ work? For me, the increased presence of strings (see “Hollow” and “Glow”) goes a long way to demonstrate that that division isn’t nearly as clear as we’ve often felt in the past.
Alex: Man, if the case is that Anders didn’t care for Take Care specifically due to it being too poppy there’s probably a bit of an irony there, since I think this album is even more toothsome when it comes to pop thrills. Who knows, maybe there was an entirely other issue at play, or maybe he’s changed his thinking or maybe there’s another distinction we aren’t aware of, but I think this now stands as the poppiest album AH have yet produced. Like, I played “Piano” out to a mixed crowd at a gig on the weekend, and I don’t think the dancefloor made any specific distinctions between it and songs by Charli XCX and Taylor Swift that were also played.
Anyways, you’re hitting the nail on the head by pointing at “Hollow” and “Glow” as key songs for establishing Ashbury Heights’ sound in 2015; it’s not just the use of strings, but the specific way those elements are used along with synth harpsichord and choir pads that make the band distinctly spooky rather than generically ‘dark’. I think their use of those sounds in that style goes all the way back to their first record Three Cheers for the Newlydeads, although they’ve really stepped their game up when it comes to weaving them into the broader palette of sounds. I’m super into the Goblin-esque lead at the beginning of “Phantasmagoria”, it’s really neat how it remains in the track even as it bursts out into this more bombastic dancefloor number. If you were looking for a good song that explains how good AH are at making spooky electropop, that’d be the one I’d pick: great production, strong songwriting and just enough of that goffick flavour to keep it grounded somewhere in Our Thing. Do you read it that way?
Bruce: I’d say so. It feels perhaps the most decadent and excessive moment on the record, and that’s a big part of AH’s appeal. Disaffected protagonists throwing glammy electro-chic balls in haunted castles, but maintaining a Gatsby like distance from the whole affair. That seems like as good a bridge as any into the album’s themes. Rather than going overly metaphorical (“The Ashes In Her Breath”) or constructing narratives (“Derrick Is A Strange Machine”), Looking Glass Society seems more centered around personal lyrics than any other Ashbury release. Themes of self-doubt and struggling to find a place and sense of contentment have been taken up before, but tunes like “Masque” and “The Number 22” seem to state a sense of strained and wearied struggle against the quotidian rather plainly.
Again, we’re back to the bridging of ‘dark’ and pop. “I don’t feel like I fit in anywhere” and “I’m striving for success on my own terms” are ideas common to plenty of classic goth releases, but they’re also ones that make up a plurality of general pop songs dating back to the very beginnings of teen culture sixty odd years ago. I’ve always found Anders to be a very ‘honest’ vocalist, if you catch my meaning. Even when working with those more structurally formal lyrical frames I mentioned earlier, he seems to be simply trying to find an artistically satisfying perspective for personal thoughts, and those seem very directly put forth on Looking Glass Society. When the odd ray of defiant, glorious sunshine sneaks in, as on “Ghost Spirit Mother”, it feels like a well-earned blast of happiness. What’s your take on how the lyrical themes relate to the songwriting, and what do you think new co-vocalist Tea F. Thimé is bringing to the table?
Alex: I’m really big on Anders’ personality as it’s reflected in his actual vocal delivery and his lyrics. His first line in “Starlight” is actually “I sang a merry dirge”, which is about as accurate a mission statement as he’s ever included in the actual text of his work. Doesn’t hurt that the line also encapsulates the album’s upward reaching mood. More than in the lyrics, I feel like the record’s song sequence best conveys how it feels; early songs like “Heart of Darkness” and “Glow” have a heavier disposition, where late album cuts like “Ghost Spirit Mother” (which feels like a brighter rewrite of their own “I Could Kill You So Easily”) and “Gravitational Man” have this lovely, weightless feel to them. So yeah, upon a bunch of listens, my read is that the album starts tied to some heavy metaphorical ground, and slowly ascends into a big starlit sky, coming back to earth on “November Corrosion”.
As for Tea, she’s got a great voice for the project, especially where Anders has always relied really heavily on his co-vocalists to provide counterpoints or a release from what he’s doing as a vocalist. I like how on this record he’s using a lot of subdued vocal processing, so when Tea comes in she seems like this massive presence, like on “Masque” and “Phantasmagoria”. Her numbers where she’s the main vocalist are all quite solid, and she has a really great voice for the old Ashbury Heights doubled male and female vocals trick, which is especially grand on “Hollow” where they both feel like they’re pushing at the edges of their comfort zone, not necessarily in pitch, but forcefulness. I think she’s a good addition for this iteration of the band. You?
Bruce: This is going to sound almost insultingly simplistic, but I like that Ashbury Heights rarely take the two vocalists structure as a reason to do dialog-style “I/You” type songs (no worries about cocktail bars here). Rather, the exchange of Anders and Tea’s voices seems to often be more about differing attitudes or phrasings from one person’s perspective. Often taking the helm on choruses, Tea gets the bird’s-eye view on the situation which Anders is driving himself through. It’s a trick as old as dirt (or at least ballads as we understand them), but it’s another example of how tuned into songwriting Anders has become in a relatively short space of time.
So we have a third Ashbury Heights full length, and I feel as though we’ve really gotten a sense of where the band lie on the map of Our Thing. Their moody, recalcitrant self-positioning undercuts just how much they know about the proximities of goth, electro, and pop. While we’ve praised them plenty of times for the quality of their tunes, it’s ironic that their most emotionally naked record is the one which reminds us that our gothy senses of isolation are nothing if not nearly universal in their appeal.