I have a strange relationship with Tulsa, OK’s Ester Drang. Okay, maybe relationship is not the right word for it, but nevertheless, my interaction with this space-rock band’s material has varied from emotional connectedness in a very deep sense to outright boredom. It’s strange that one band, in the midst of 3 full-length releases (and only two that are widely available), can emit such a wide variation of responses from me. I found Goldenwest to be a charmingly flawed emotional record that captured so perfectly what was going on in my life in 2001, and songs like “That’s When He Turned Us Golden” and “How Good is Good Enough” still resonate strongly with me. However, 2003’s Infinite Keys sounded much less interesting to me, as the band backed off from the sonic crescendos to play a lighter and more song-based brand of their music. The identification I feel with Goldenwest, though, still resonates with me, and I eagerly anticipated the latest release from this band. Entitled Rocinate, this full-length CD was several years in the making, and with the calibre of the other projects that band members most notably drummer James McAllister) have been involved with in the interim, fans of Ester Drang had every reason to anticipate a more ambitious and well-crafted release from this band. And well-crafted ambition is exactly what Rocinate delivers.
In truth, Rocinate sounds like Ester Drang combining the best of the moody and multi-layered goodness of Goldenwest with the stronger song structures of Infinite Keys. Ester Drang incorporates a myriad of sounds into the songs on Rocinate, including (but not limited to) multiple variations of guitars, keyboards, horns, strings, inventive percussion, and layered vocals. The band treads musical territory somewhere along a continuum where Radiohead, Coldplay, The Flaming Lips and Starflyer 59 reside, while including other surprising elements that keep Rocinate from sounding like a bland rip-off of any of these bands. Lead vocalist Bryce Chambers delivers his most confident vocals as of yet, and his voice is mixed even more to the front compared with other Ester Drang releases. The short of it is that Rocinate is an interesting and even outright fun release in which Ester Drang focuses their efforts to come up with a CD that not only represents the solidification of a definitive “Ester Drang sound”, but also pushes that sound into newer territory with success.
The disco(!)-tinged “Come Back Alive” starts Rocinate off, and the song is a fine example of Ester Drang’s familiar melody structure and liquid guitar playing adapted into a new groove. The song slithers and slides with a punchy horn line and campy beat while retaining an element of darkness. “Come Back Alive” is an excellent opening track, featuring a 60’s influenced middle piano section, dense drum and bending string parts to support Chambers’ layered vocals. “Valencia’s Dying Dream” forebodingly starts out sounding like a Coldplay song, with that recognizable drum and piano intro, but the song quickly takes on its own life as soon as the pliable guitar parts make their appearance. The song builds to the biggest crescendo heard on a Ester Drang release since the Goldenwest days, with aggressive guitars and pounding drums. “Grave Mistake” is another multi-layered gem, featuring delicate background vocals along with several sonic quirks, like the Latin-style clapping on the second verse, the trademark keyboard warbles that mark every Ester Drang release, as well as the combination of drums and drum machines throughout the song. The mood is sleek yet sullen, and the band pulls off their musical ideas with poise. “Hooker With a Heart of Gold” shows the band bringing a softer style, and is lush with strings parts and an almost 1970’s style melody. “Great Expectations” sounds like a slowcore song recorded underwater (not a bad thing, mind you) with its distant vocals, drones, operatic background vocals and subtle percussion. The song pushes towards an extended instrumental outro that lasts several minutes, dazzling the listener with the myriad of sounds that Ester Drang incorporates into the song. As the song ends with chiming keyboards, “Everyone is a Victim” begins with a wailing guitar, only to turn into a pop-rock song almost fit for radio. I say “almost”, as the song, complete with horn riffs and perhaps the most catchy melody the band has ever written, builds into a short but powerful space-rock outro. “Space and Air” is aptly titled: it’s a light song featuring a breezy melody and soft instrumentation reminiscent of the Infinite Keys era, though the song does build towards an almost Motown-like outro, with horns and another campy beat. “Caledonia” sees Ester Drang returning to the instrumental fold, with an especially impressive performance by McAllister. The band fuses experimental sounds with frantic drumming to create a soaring mood. “White Lies” is a fine song with a pretty melody, and appropriately lush production, complete with a Jason Martin-esque guitar line permeating throughout the mix. The song, the longest on the CD, eventually morphs into a dark space-rock jam, again demonstrating the band’s instrumental skills. Finally, Proustian Moments rounds out Rocinate, featuring a melody that would fit right in with Goldenwest’s darkest moments. The sound of the song flirts with floating away from the listener, but the song’s melody (as well as the busy drumming) keeps the song from becoming obscure.
I’ve waited a long time for Ester Drang to release a CD matched the intensity and ambition of Goldenwest, and while I have yet to forge a really strong emotional connection to Rocinate yet, it sure seems to me that the Ester Drang I’ve been waiting for has appeared. Three long years of writing and recording have paid great dividends for this band, now truly able to stand on its own feet as its own entity and with its own sound. Rocinate is an extremely solid release, with interesting arrangements and sounds, and features more than a handful of great moments that the band should be proud of. Recommended!