Audio Mixers: Peter Katis; Tom Biller.
Though a dark heart beats below the surface, Daniel James Smith's debut LP, It's Not About the Witches, glimmers with hope and comfort. As T.O.L.D., the Los Angeles-based Brit imbues many of the tracks with the levity of steel drums to lend a tropical vibe, while employing a gospel choir to elevate the mood. If Bastille and Kygo got together to write an '80s new wave tribute album, Witches would be it. Produced by Smith, Tom Biller (Kanye West, Eels), Biggi Veira (of Gusgus), and Cameron Parkins, Witches is polished yet heartfelt, veiled in an aura of mystery. The album comes to life on the atmospheric first track "The Fool," which explodes like a pane of glass shattering in a desperate cry of "hey, look at me!" That's the one aggressive moment, as the high drama cools down over the course of the album. The tropical indie rock of "Lucifer's Eyes" and "2 Young" -- a pair of summery gems that sparkle with yearning and innocence -- reveals a warmth with rich layers and inspired production. The end of "2 Young," especially, amps up the energy and spiritual fervor with a choir, taking the album to church like the best moments on Moby's Play. After the brief plunge back into ominous territory on "The Hierophant," Smith begins channeling Depeche Mode on "Live and Let Go," carrying their spirit through the hymnal "There's No Truth," and ending on "Return Forever," which features Jas Shaw of Simian Mobile Disco. The restrained gloom of the Cure billows in on the epic "A Noise" before Witches ascends to the heavens on the rapturous "Master of the Species." Considering the kitchen-sink inspirations -- steel drums, gospel choirs, and new wave goth? -- this debut works impressively well, both for fans of heart-on-sleeve indie rock and ethereal synth-infused dance. ~ Neil Z. Yeung