Not too long ago, I was quite rightly called out for describing Ladytron‘s third album Witching Hour (2005) as “patchy”. Apparently most people consider it to be their best, but is that because it really is their best, or just because it was – at least at the time – their most commercially successful? Either way, unable to say for certain whether I could justify my initial judgement, I decided to give it another chance, and see how it would stand up to another listen.
It doesn’t open particularly promisingly though – High Rise is OK, it’s just much too noisy for its own good. The occasional moments when you’re actually able to hear things through the electronic drone do stand out, but they are few and far between. And the decision to use that as an opener is all the odder when the brilliant second single Destroy Everything You Touch turns up. It’s still darker and harsher than even the particularly dark and harsh Light and Magic album (2002), but it’s got a full vocal, which is generally a good thing, and it has a lot less feedback in the mix, and it’s undoubtedly one of the best songs of their career to date.
Subsequent tracks International Dateline and Soft Power are good too. As always, the lyrics are intangible to say the least (“Broken glass is luxury / Friendly fires are alchemy”), but otherwise Soft Power in particular is just a couple of steps away from being brilliant – particularly when the chorus turns up, it’s almost as catchy as something on one of their earlier albums. And that’s what makes Ladytron so fantastic when they’re at their best – they hide incredibly good pop songs under all the dark eyeliner and rhythmic synths.
Neither CMYK nor AMTV does much to convince me that I was wrong about this album. The former is pleasant, but it’s difficult to know quite why it’s here – and the latter somehow doesn’t entirely sound finished. Things pick up again with Sugar though. This is noisy again, but it’s also tuneful. The occasionally overwhelming electronics give it a charming lo-fi quality, rather than edging towards an overpowering dirge. This was the lead single, and while it wasn’t the enormous single that Ladytron probably should have been racking up by this stage, it was justifiably well received.
Of course, the memory cheats, but I don’t really remember any of the tracks on the latter half of the album, and Fighting in Built Up Areas does begin to explain why. There’s a bit of repetitive mumbling in what’s apparently Bulgarian (well I learnt something there – I had always assumed it was Russian) – but not a huge amount else.
But actually from The Last One Standing through to Weekend and Beauty^2, there’s a string of good songs, none of which deserved to be forgotten – they were never going to be singles, but neither does their album really deserve to be branded as “patchy”. There are still weaker moments – Whitelightgenerator is long and dull, and closing track All the Way… could almost have been incredible, but again it feels a little bit incomplete and empty somehow – as though there’s a chord missing from the chorus, or they forgot the bass, or something.
The following year’s Extended Play EP is one to listen to another time, but some of its extra tracks – particularly Tender Talons and Nothing to Hide – could have easily slotted onto this album in place of the weaker tracks. Of course a studio album should never just be a compilation of your best songs, but their omission is a bit of a shame.
So, we can definitely conclude that describing Witching Hour as “patchy” is unfair. True, it lacks the innocence of debut album 604 (2001) or the melodies – and possibly some of the innovation too – of Light and Magic too. And I think subsequent releases Velocifero (2008) and Gravity the Seducer (2011) are more solid and consistent. But actually it has a lot going for it, and certainly doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. And if nothing else, there’s definitely one way in which this is their best album – the artwork is far better than on anything that came before or since.