Prior to the release of their first album, 2012’s Wild Peace, Echo Lake lost their mercurial drummer Pete Hayes, who passed away at the cruelly young age of twenty five. In the three years since, songwriters Thom Hill and singer Linda Jarvis regrouped and started writing again and with Era, Echo Lake have delivered a startling return. At just over 45 minutes long it features seven songs, but there’s nothing indulgent here - indeed, the brevity that’s applied to each song means the music doesn’t drag or dip once.
Opener “Light Sleeper”, with its Krautrock synthesiser accompaniment, sets the mood of the record; intense, yet bittersweet. It’s also the first of many references to the unconscious, with the sleep and dream motifs of many of the songs mirrored by the hypnotic, somnambulant feel of the arrangements. The singing is a blur of sound throughout; the words are only occasionally audible, which fits their spacey atmosphere in the same way Liz Fraser's voice did with the Cocteau Twins.
The song titles - which consist of either one or two words – like the songs themselves, are frequently onomatopoeic, most literally on “Waves”, the first single from the album. Starting with a marching band snare and a simple piano hook, the tremolo guitars dovetail the reverb-drenched vocal with an undulating funk bassline underneath it. If My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields produced The Ronettes “Be My Baby”, it would sound something like this. It flits between moods, but the overriding emotion is sadness (one of the few discernible lines is “I haven’t slept today, are you walking away?”).
The title track is as poppy as Echo Lake get. With pared down drums which again employ a 60s girl band shuffle, it evokes the mellifluous and heart raising feel that The Jesus and Mary Chain brought to “Just Like Honey.” The vocal gives way to a lovely instrumental passage where the key and tempo shifts ever so subtly and unexpectedly into, well, not quite folk pop, but certainly a softer guitar jangle than elsewhere on the record.
“Dröm”, which naturally is the Swedish word for “dream”, starts with nearly three minutes of immersive feedback, before the drums and voice enter the fray and the song keeps building and adding colour throughout a delightful, never dull eight minutes. “Nothing Lasts” is a heartbreaker bathed in a warm sunlight glow, with touches of acoustic guitar underscoring the spaced out vocal, alongside a sparse rhythm and keyboards. You can easily imagine it stripped down to just guitar and voice, for all the atmospherics and embellishments of the arrangement, at heart it’s a simple lullaby, a paean to enjoying the moment, but also a lament about ephemera. “Don’t waste your heart on it, it doesn’t matter to me.”
The closing “Heavy Dreaming” returns to the theme of the unconscious. It clocks in at just over ten minutes, but it’s so well executed it doesn’t outstay its welcome. There's a wonderful guitar hook that sounds like the psychedelic droning The Byrds explored on “Eight Miles High”. The vocals sound angelic rather than ominous and ebb and flow, occasionally submerged underneath the music. The refrain picks up around the five minute mark and from there on in it’s a guitar bliss out par excellence.
As an elegy to Hayes, Era is a beautifully crafted tribute to their friend, but it’s also a statement of intent, which is to keep moving and create music that mixes the ups with the downs, euphoria with despondency, in a voice that is their own. With the reformations of some of its leading lights, shoegaze is suddenly back in fashion, but with Era, Echo Lake are walking their own dreamlike path. Perhaps we should call what they do ‘newgaze’ instead.