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Death In June - Essence!

Where once Death In June dealt in hope, life and love, they now revel in death, decay, nothingness and emptiness. As the neo-folk genre he helped birth has retreated, Douglas P. and Death in June have become increasingly isolated. He's closed rank on many if not all of his previous collaborators, as much as they have distanced themselves from him. Death In June was always about oneness. There was never any room for passengers. And while ensconced at home in Adelaide, Australia he has unexpectedly returned with an album, Essence!, that looks to the past as much as it looks at the now. Since relocating to Australia Death In June releases have reflected a stripped back sound, affectionately termed "totenpop", found in the intimate and introspective piano arrangements of their last "proper" album Peaceful Snow and in the stark guitar representations found on the albums The Rule of Thirds and The Snow Bunker Tapes. Essence! arrived unexpectedly and it breathes new life into a body of work that was in danger of becoming unrelentingly stark in its structure and unremittingly bleak in its lyrical concerns. Essence!, however, embellishes those familiar melodies with a richer and wider palette of instrumentation, capturing the, uh, essence of Death In June whilst simultaneously exploring new areas and experimenting with new structures.

Essence! presents itself with an unholy series of woos, bells and gongs amidst ringing sirens and e-bow discordance as samples proclaim "I would be protected, saved and guided while others would be harshly, savagely tossed into the void". Augmented by lolling bass tones and keyboards with lilting acoustic strum 'God A Pale Curse' settles into a reminiscence, a reverie of his London years "I've forgotten all that I done, I remember all that I did" he opines in a track littered with references to religion: gospel, scripture, church and pope. Self-referential and self-reverential it's worth pointing out that the title is an anagram of Douglas Pearce. What's immediately clear about Essence! is the fuller, richer sound when compared to his previous releases recorded in Australia, whilst continuing the heavy use of samples within and between songs. This expanded sound continues on 'The Trigger', a mellow and melodic, gently strummed ballad with graceful moving chords set against bass tones and a simple percussive click. "Not only did I lose you, I lost myself too" utters Douglas P. amidst passages of low aahing accompaniment and the occasional windchime straddling ruminations on trust, fear and wounds and the impotent effect of the crucifix to protect. It carries all the hallmarks of being a Death In June classic.

From here Essence! veers into a more discordant sound, with jolts of e-bow scraping against the tinkle of bells, as the ring of quick-strum guitars appears to open up 'Snipers of the Maidan'. Douglas' voice is poised and direct as he invokes figures of snipers and traitors while more poetically drawing on imagery of the moon and flowers. On 'God A Pale Curse' he sung of being "in my own universe" but here he casts a glance outwards to external and real events, to atrocities committed in recent history but at the hands of Douglas P. 'Snipers of the Maidan' becomes ambiguous, cryptic, and accompanied at times by whispers it sounds sinister. "There are traitors everywhere" but who they are remains unclear.

While the acoustic setting of 'Snipers of the Maidan' is riddled with elements of noise and discord, the following track, 'The Humble Brag' is something of an anomaly here and probably elsewhere in the canon of Death In June. Deftly strummed punctuated by a wiry niggling lead electric guitar line and a high registered oohing accompaniment. The lyrics seem to take a shot at the shit disturbers found on social media and in life generally. Represented here as mad, sad, bad factory rats that spread plague and takes offence at the drop of the hat. It could even be read as a leisurely swipe at those who plague Death In June with their constant mouthy, ill-informed accusations. Douglas P. doesn't seem to care though he's lost in a reverie of a golden time that could have been.

If Essence! up to now captures a revitalised and reinvigorated Death In June, it just gets better. Douglas P. is still more than able to create a catchy melody as evidenced on 'Going Dark'. "Like a fly on the wall at my own funeral, I am free" he continually notes over the melodic acoustic strum. Icy keyboard notes pick at the melody as he savours the miserableness and pain this imagined relationship would bring. As he sings of his wedding, you might recall 'The Golden Wedding of Sorrow' from But, What Ends When The Symbols Shatter? and while 'Going Dark' may reprise the sound of those earlier classic Death In June albums it presents an altogether different sentiment more attuned to his more recent preoccupation with the acceptance of death and decay.

But does the dance of life grow weak is the question he asks today, repeatedly as his voice grows distant over the ringing acoustic guitar of 'The Dance of Life - To Shoot A Valkyrie'. From windchimes and e-bow it slips into the quick strum of the second section which brings to the fore all the familiar tropes associated with Death In June. Sheathed in Norse mythology of the Valkyrie in the form of a swan it basks in a sleep state, and a feeling of nothingness and emptiness. Nothing seems to matter, its meaning best captured in the line "He who loves not is better than to have loved at all" he sings shadowed by bass tones and bells over atmospheric keyboards on this captivating number which represents another highlight on Essence!.

The following tracks yield to a kind of acceptance, a resignation to the march of time and ultimately destiny. Somewhat low-key and understated 'No Belief' sets shimmering sixties chords to a slight wailing keyboard sound and gentle pulsing bass tones. Even the vocal backing featuring an assortment of la's and soft cooing accompaniment can't hide the sense of resignation that hangs heavy here: "I've heard you've sold your soul ... dead with no belief". It's a point underscored in the samples which range from "Sometimes I'm sad, sometimes I'm happy" to "all our days are numbered" with the final verses adapting the lyrics to expand that sense of resignation onto others. "I fell in love with a sickness, I didn't see it coming" Douglas P. intones warmly in a half-sung, half-spoken voice on the melancholic 'The Pole Star of Eden' backed by simple rolling hand drum beats in a song filled with whispers, e-bow noise and panning percussive effects, as he sings of wooden crosses and wooden roses.

'What Will Become of Us?' features a captivating combination of guitars, trumpets and sixties styled keyboards. For fall we must, but what will become of us? in these uncertain times he questions in love and lust, as we turn to dust and as we age and rust. Sprinkled by duelling keyboards which groove in a way not heard on a Death In June album since a former collaborator swiped the keys from a Brigitte Bardot number penned by Serge Gainsbourg. The middle section flanked by trumpets featuring layered voices and samples carries echoes of the past as much as it wrestles with the uncertainty of the present.

The final track 'My Florida Dawn' is cryptic, crepuscular and darkly atmospheric, as Douglas P. recalls mixed memories of a fallen comrade, collaborator or friend over arching synths and sombre picked piano notes. It recalls moments from The World That Summer but who he'll always have a fate filled love for is never made clear. It's a downbeat coda to an album that is eminently enjoyable whose melodic and varied structure, often sprightly and breezy is at odds with the lyrical preoccupation.

I'm really surprised. For years, it seemed Douglas P. was winding things down, and, at worst, as some felt, merely going through the motions. Essence!, though, is imbued with a vitality that was missing from some of their recent releases. There's a comforting sense of warmth in its autumnal sound which seems to have evolved from a combination of The Rule of Thirds and Rose Clouds of Holocaust. It may not hit the heights of the magic that Ken Thomas sprinkled over the classic run of releases in the nineties but at times it does come close. Like a dear friend you haven't seen for years, the return of Death In June on Essence! is familiar, enjoyable and just feels right. Essence! is available in multiple formats including cassette, CD, picture disc, translucent pink and green splatter vinyl. Those limited vinyl editions wont last long. For more information go to Death in June and Death in June bandcamp