ESP Summer, "Kingdom of Heaven"
Back in the mid-'90s, His Name is Alive and Pale Saints were labelmates on 4AD and a seemingly one-off studio collaboration between Warren Defever and Ian Masters called ESP Summer was born. While that debut album arguably felt like a too-smooth and straightforward blend of the two artists' aesthetics, it did not take long for deeper eccentricities start appearing, as the project soon started varying its name (ESP Neighbor, ESP Continent), omitting crucial information from album credits, and exclusively releasing limited releases on odd formats. Aside from that, they also went on a 25 year hiatus that finally ended with a pair of releases on Osaka, Japan's Onkonomiyaki label in 2020. Both were quite weird (Here is composed of minimal, vocal-free sound collages), but one of them was also quite good and this is that one: originally a 5" lathe cut vinyl release entitled Â§©ÂõΩ„ÅÆÁéãÂõΩ, the EP is now getting a second life with the translated and apt title Kingdom of Heaven. More specifically, this EP is comprised of four very divergent covers of a single song from the 13th Floor Elevators' 1966 debut (and one written by Powell St. John rather than the band, no less). While the original "Kingdom of Heaven" is a perfectly fine song that was not exactly begging for further enhancements, its strong hooks make it a perfect and sturdy melodic center for Masters and Defever's freewheeling dreampop and psych experimentation. Given the project's oft-inscrutable trajectory, Kingdom of Heaven is an unexpectedly focused, memorable, and compelling release.
Amusingly, the opening "Tengoku no ≈çkoku" sounds like something that would have made quite a splash if it had been released by a 4AD superduo back in 1995, as it resembles a spacier, more dreampop-inspired Joy Division (stark drums, meaty chorus-treated bass, etc.) enhanced with more soulful, melodic vocals. Very few of those traits make the trip into the album's second piece, yet "Kumamushi" is nevertheless another "classic 4AD"-sounding single, albeit one with an asterisk, as it is only an actual song for two of its eight minutes (it dissolves into a bleary ambient outro of reverb-drowned piano and soft-focus wordless vocals). Before that point, however, "Kumamushi" is absolutely gorgeous and opens with a killer early HNIA-style guitar melody. Masters contributes some tender, languorous vocals for his part, but they are more like an additional instrument than the focus. The actual focus of the song comes slightly later, as it unexpectedly explodes into a wonderfully stomping and propulsive passage of dual-guitar harmony. The long wake of ambient shimmer that it leaves behind is enjoyable too, but it is unavoidably eclipsed by the perfect two minutes that proceed it.
In keeping with the EP's theme of endless reinvention, "Taish≈çgoto o ≈çkoku" plays "Kingdom of Heaven" fairly straight, as Masters and Defever reduce the song to little more just the lovely vocal melody, a strummed acoustic guitar, and the cool eastern-sounding lead guitar hook. Naturally, the closing "Uchu" dramatically shifts gears once more, stretching out for nearly fifteen ghostly, lo-fi minutes and opening with a virtuosic and nimbly dancing guitar theme that intertwines with a fluttering and serpentine flute melody. Gradually, the expected vocal and guitar melodies appear, but the textures play a crucial role, as the piece has an appealingly hissing, frayed, and lysergic feel. That ghostly atmosphere suits the piece quite nicely, but it is just one facet, as there are also live drums, subtle layers of psychedelia, and a final stretch that feels like a stretched and blurred classical requiem. While a few pieces on this EP could be considered indulgent to a self-sabotaging degree to someone hunting for a perfectly crafted single, I would be hard pressed to find any fault with the release as a whole, as its four songs add up to a soulful and immersive experience and the whole thing is grounded in strong hooks that regularly resurface like a mantra or an inescapable gravitational pull.
Samples can be found here.