ALBUM RELEASE: Woman’s Hour – ‘Ephyra’
WORDS BY: CALLUM MITCHELL-SIMON
It’s been a long five years since we last heard from Woman’s Hour, when their stunning 2014 debut LP, Conversations, swiftly put them on the rise to becoming a household name, alongside the likes of contemporaries The xx & Daughter. They were a band with their own distinct identity and sound, and an incredible run of singles to support them, including Darkest Place, Her Ghost and In Stillness We Remain.
However, a lot can happen in five years. A relentless touring schedule, and the now fevered anticipation now placed on the band, added to their pressures. They began recording demo material for a second LP, but following a tense number of sessions, in 2016 the band decided to call it a day, citing “deteriorating mental health”. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when the remaining band members decided to reconvene in an attempt to finish the recording process that they started, which leads us to their present state, and their new, final album Ephyra. A band, not quite fully with us, but here in all their honesty to present their hard toiled over work. It’s a definitive take on the time old “difficult second album” story.
First track and lead single from the LP Don’t Speak sets the tone for the record from the start. It presents itself as more of a mood piece than a conventionally structured song. The title, plus a few more fragmented lyrics, are repeated over and over various shifting and modulated soundscapes, like an ever-changing state of mind, in flux of it’s own self.
This continues into second track From Eden To Exile. There’s a jittery, restless feel to the song, with several false starts and snippets from other songs and spoken word excerpts before the central melody kicks in. The effect is like a radio dial constantly being re-tuned, unable to settle on a frequency. This restless energy is found again on second single Luke, which builds itself up over a single synth line. “Am I shouting in a vacuum? Can you hear me?” lead singer Fiona Burgess calls out, before a simple chorus of a repeating piano note and the word “breath”, like a mantra to encourage a state of calm.
This sums up the album as a whole. It’s breathlessly inventive at times, a real artistic step up for the band. You can hear them really pushing to create something unique, not to settle on a sound that will define them. It’s impeccably produced – the songs don’t fit into set forms and structures, they’re much looser and free-form, compositions that seek to explore various emotional states. They reflect a fragmented, scattered state of mind – constantly shifting and changing in rhythm and tempo. The off kilter effects on I Can’t Take You Seriously, which starts off relatively straightforward, a clear guitar line guiding the way, then begins to build upon wave after wave of electronics, with various vocal modulations and pitch bends making it feel as if the foundations of the songs are slipping away from underneath you. There’s a pervading feeling of tension underlying the album, an edge, a sense of darkness, that all is not well. This informs and infuses it’s way into the sound and texture of the music.
The flip side of this, however, it that there’s not a great deal of consistency to be found.There’s no tracks on here that lift it to a level of greatness, and nothing to match some of the peerless work on Conversations. It can feel patchy at times, like a work in progress – which, in fairness, is what this record always was. It’s A Blast and Removal Of Hope in particular don’t feel fully finished, and wrap up before having made a distinct impression.
The band have been unflinchingly honest in saying that this is an album pieced together from the fragments of original demos, recorded in their hometown of Kendal. In their own words: “They contain the thoughts, memories, ambitions, fears and sleepless nights that have come to define the narrative of our lives over the last three years. These songs are letters to you, and once you’ve sent a letter you can never ask for it back”. It’s not a perfect album, but deliberately so. It’s an honest record, capturing a band in a state of uncertainty and complete emotional honesty.
Hopefully we haven’t heard the last from Woman’s Hour. They are one of the most deftly creative and emotionally resilient bands around at the moment. If not, then this album acts as a bittersweet finale for their story, a taste of what could have been.