New Haunts, Still Dark Sky, Cold Transmission
Alice Sheridan, the person behind the Bristol-based solo project, New Haunts, started experimenting with synthesizers around 2017 after having played guitar and done vocals in multiple bands. This experimentation led to the release of her debut album, Worlds Left Behind, in 2018. Her talent and unique style got her noticed within the “wave”-scene and beyond, the first single of her debut album was played on the catwalk of New York Fashion Week. Her second album, Fight/Flight, was released in 2020 and brought us the lush, melodic synths and the strong vocals we all needed so badly during the sad Corona-times. Tracks such as ‘Cleanse’ and ‘Thrill’ on Fight/Flight are masterfully produced earworms, that stay in your head for days. Instrumentally, her work stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Hante./Minuit Machine. But Alice’s haunting vocals are a different story altogether.
image: Alastair Power
On the morning of the album release I went into the bathroom and put on Still Dark Sky. The first song, ‘Agora’, was blasting through the Bluetooth speakers and as I was brushing my teeth, I immediately understood that this is not bathroom material. It’s too vulnerable, too complex for a morning shower – a good sign in my world. I love those albums that need several listens before you can actually figure out if you like them or not. You need to plough through them, even if a superficial listen wouldn’t be unpleasant in any way. But to come to a point where you can say you really “get” all of it, notice all the layers and the tiny sounds and details, some albums just need a more thorough approach. And this is one of those pieces of art that gave me great satisfaction in “dissecting” over many listens.
image: Alastair Power
Still Dark Sky is raw but fresh. New Haunt’s new album is refreshing in a scene that is stuck in old habits (again, I personally really don’t mind) or lately tends to gravitate more towards techno. Alice is not afraid to go off the beaten track and do her own thing. Whereas on her previous album, one could still clearly recognize some obvious minimal-wave influences when it came to composition, I now hear an artist who has grown, found her own (badass) aesthetics and freed herself from expectations and genre-related restrictions.
Some may argue that there is too much singing and playing around with vocals. I understand that it might be slightly unfamiliar to combine cold/minimal wave with a lot of vocals and poetically complex lyrics. But that is exactly what I find so original and refreshing about this album and it’s one of the main reasons for my obsession with it. In French we say “Les goûts et les couleurs ne se discutent pas”, so though that might be a deal-breaker for some, for others it’s embraced with open arms.
Alice uses her strong, unique voice as an instrument that strengthens the uncanny, anxiety-laden and almost oppressive atmosphere set by the percussion and the synths. She knows exactly how to make her voice work, take the extreme vibrato that threatens the hell out of its listeners in ‘Days Shutting Down’, or the melancholic vocals with an undertone of massive strength in ‘Failing Me’. I’ve heard someone (not just someone, our dearest Megan Moonbat) describe her voice as “somewhere between Kate Bush and Grace Jones” and loved the comparison. Personally, Alice’s singing style somehow reminds me of Cocteau Twins. Don’t ask me for an explanation though…
Just like the music and the vocals, the lyrics are very poetic and personal. They may not always make perfect sense to the listener, but just like any good piece of poetry they evoke emotions, with heady atmospheres. They often touch upon (existential) anxiety – angst, even–, trying to escape from recurring dark thoughts and nightmares. It’s bittersweet, since there is a lot of hope and strength shining through the cracks and the broken pieces.
There are minutes without
Just as there are lifetimes with it
There is change about
But some things are never changing
We can scream aloud
Or we can keep it within
We can hold our breath
Whilst we usher it in
- 'Still Dark Sky'
Album closer, ‘Fortress’, breaks away from the above-mentioned themes and even leaves the threatening, anxious atmosphere behind. Here, we see a different yet still very poetic New Haunts. While ‘Days Shutting Down’ is a nightmare, ‘Fortress’ is a beautiful daydream, a sweet fantasy. I imagine it to be about losing yourself in art and imagining living inside a fantastic world where everything is at peace.
Let's go to the Barbican
Walk in science fiction
Live for the afternoon
In an ideal concrete picture
I'd live here, I'd lean
from the balcony in Lauderdale
And wave to you from Cromwell
Shakespeare looking on
Not only are the vocals and lyrics remarkable; Still Dark Sky is also an instrumental masterpiece. Warm, analog-sounding synths swirl throughout melodies that are minimalistic, yet powerful and moody. Together with the vocals and the percussion they make the listener feel the uncomfortable, fearful atmosphere that colors most of this album. In any other song, the buzzing background noise throughout ‘Still Dark Sky’ would usually annoy the hell out of me. But here it’s blended well, also thanks to the great warm mastering that is present in every song on the album, adding to the unsettlingly oppressive angst running through the entire album itself. The short, arpeggiated string sound in the background of ‘Blame’ sounds eerie, threatening and otherworldly. I can’t quite put my finger on what kind of string instrument it is (perhaps a contrabass). The lush pads never become too dreamy or comfortable and sustain the dark atmospherics. Satisfying the pad addict in me (if you have read my previous album reviews on Dark Habits you might have noticed that I’m a pad freak). It is clear that a lot of work went into the sound design of both synths and percussion.
I’m currently listening to Still Dark Sky for the 14th or 15th time. The more I listen to it, the more I am convinced that it is an absolute work of art that deserves to be praised endlessly by those who can see the beauty of it. Yes… it is raw and brutally honest. It’s not an easy, serene listen. You will not play this album whilst taking a morning shower (although I personally wouldn’t mind waking up to ‘Fortress’.) But go ahead and order the vinyl on Bandcamp, put it on when you are in the mood to be carried away by fine art, pour yourself a glass of whiskey or red wine, sit in your most comfy couch and close your eyes. Now, let New Haunts take you on a musical and poetic journey.
If you listen and like what you hear, consider supporting independent musicians and buy their music. New Haunts' Bandcamp link