Ladytron's fourth album has the foursome continuing to show just how consistently good they are.
When Ladytron's memorable single "Seventeen" broke right during the tail end of the electroclash fad in 2002 -- driven by its chilly, antiseptic synths, clinical electronic beats, and deadpan social commentary -- as ingenious a replication of Kraftwerk-inspired electropop as it was, many wondered if that would mark the high point of the Liverpool foursome's creative ascent. Even those who greatly admired the sounds on 2001's remarkable debut 604 and 2002's highly polished follow-up Light & Magic had to wonder: As good as all this was, just how long could Ladytron make this last and still sound relevant in the process?
Well, here we are six years after "Seventeen" held indie scenesters spellbound, and Ladytron still sounds as fresh as ever. Two and a half years removed from the shockingly gorgeous Witching Hour, we have a band that continues its graceful musical evolution on album number four, incorporating subtle enhancements here and there, yet at the same time comfortably staying the course. Thanks to the contributions of Nine Inch Nails collaborator Allesandro Cortini and trendy electro artist Vicarious Bliss, both of whom serve as co-producers on the album, the end result is a record that feels familiar and eclectic at the same time, a continuation of Ladytron's increasing fascination with light versus shade, emotional warmth versus unrelenting iciness.
The overall effect of Velocifero is not unlike an icy breeze blowing in off a lake on a sunny summer's day: sumptuous at times, but once that wind kicks in, we're chilled to the bone. And the way the 13-track album is sequenced, it's clear that the band, comprised of singer/keyboardists Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo, along with keyboardists Daniel Hunt and Reuben Wu, clearly knows how to keep its audience unsettled, setting listeners up with a handful of pop-friendly tunes only to come from out of nowhere with moments of jarring bleakness.
Those darker tracks, clearly a product of Cortini's influence, are especially interesting on this record. Aroyo's vocal contributions rarely, if ever, top those of the much more dryly seductive Marnie, but opening track "Black Cat" is fabulously sinister, from its murky synth line, to the harsh tom tom samples, to Aroyo's enigmatic Bulgarian vocals. Aroyo actually contributes her most compelling lead vocals in years on "Season of Illusions", managing to turn in a performance with more nuance than her usual monotone, which in the past tended to get old rather quickly. The undulating synths of "Burning Up" bears a strong similarity to Light & Magic, Marnie's allusions to self-immolation conveying a frightening level of obsession toward the object of her desire, while "Predict the Day" boasts the most minimal arrangement we've heard form the band in some time, a forlorn, whistled melody underneath the synths and beats adding an air of menace.
The more pop-friendly fare, though still leaning towards the darker side, is at times phenomenal, led by Marnie, who continues to show more strength as a lead singer with every release. Picking up where the Goldfrapp of 2003-2005 left off, the glam rock shuffle of "Ghosts" is propelled by a distorted bassline as Marnie confronts her former lover, contemplates expressing remorse ("Made a trail of a thousand tears / Made you a prisoner inside your own secrecy"), but instead delivers an audacious middle finger in the coyly sung, but unrepentantly vicious chorus: "There's a ghost in me who wants to say I'm sorry / Doesn't mean I'm sorry". "I'm Not Scared" marks a brief return to the post-punk-infused sounds of past single "Sugar", "Runaway"'s somewhat rote arrangement is kept afloat by Marnie's charismatic delivery, while "The Lovers" is jarringly upbeat, led by a chorus that dares to evoke the adjective "soaring".
At 53 minutes, Velocifero flirts with seeming overlong, and "Kletva" -- a cover of a theme from a Bulgarian children's movie from the 1970s -- sounds tacked on, disrupting the otherwise impressive cohesion of the rest of the album, Thankfully, that slight blip doesn't derail what is one confident, focused piece of work, which concludes with a triumphant climactic trifecta in "Deep Blue", "Tomorrow", and "Versus" (wait, is that acoustic guitar?) -- three songs that show us both how well Ladytron has settled into a style they can now call their own, and how that style, much to the surprise of many, allows for tremendous creative growth with every new release.