Listening to a Doldrums album can be an overwhelming experience. Both 2013's Lesser Evil and 2015's The Air Conditioned Nightmare felt meticulously designed to induce sensory overload in an audience. Frontman Airick Woodhead seemed both adventurous and exuberant, incorporating everything from glitchy textures to busy rhythms into his past work.
Esc, Woodhead's third album under the moniker, sees him refining his approach. His production still commands attention, but it's also leaner and more assured. While Lesser Evil married dance tracks to indie influences like the Cocteau Twins and Animal Collective, Esc remains firmly rooted in industrial and techno.
The transition is largely successful. The yelps and cries that defined Woodhead's early work are largely gone, replaced with more melodic, restrained vocals. Both "Perv" and "Runner Up" feature smooth, tuneful singing that contrasts their jittery, clattering beats.
This push-pull dynamic between instrumentals and vocals forms the backbone of Esc. Even as Woodhead's production and subject matter delve into paranoia and uncertainty, his voice remains resolute and strong. "Heater" contrasts cold, roving synths with one of Woodhead's catchiest choruses to date, while "Against the Glass" pairs his high-pitched delivery with a thudding beat.
Woodhead only disrupts this balance when he leans too hard on industrial hallmarks. His vocals strain alongside the slow, colossal beat on "Swim," while "The Stitched Together Man" feels rushed where the rest of the album is patient.
Even as he leans on stock techniques, though, Woodhead has the confidence and skill to keep listeners engaged. Esc may not overpower listeners like previous Doldrums efforts, but its assuredness and maturity ultimately make for a more rewarding experience. (Independent)