The occult/psychedelic movement has been quiet this year, and when it has made noise, that noise has been like bathwater: tepid and lukewarm. Aside from a small handful of notable exceptions, when you search the site for occult rock or psychedelic rock, you find a ton of 2.5s and 3.0s. Not the most fun in the world. But North Carolina duo New Light Choir aim to change that here with their third album, Torchlight. While their first two albums showed promise, there was obvious room for growth, both in production and songwriting. But as is the case with pretty much every genre, it’s easy to take things into parody range. Worshiping too hard at the retro altar usually doesn’t work out.
While Torchlight sees the duo of drummer Chris Dalton and everything-elser John Niffenegger up their game from previous outings, New Light Choir manages to tread the fine psych line without stepping over it. This is a much more metallic effort than 2015’s Volume II, with gritty guitar tones throughout. “Grand Architect” opens with plodding chords before taking flight with a complex riff. Niffenegger’s vocals ride high in the mix, slightly distorted with a slap echo adding punch. Lyrics about purple mountains, children of light, and stargazing seers invoke plenty of mysticism. The low-fi production isn’t massively overboard like the latest from Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, but rather adds just enough 60s feel to the music to feel slightly trippy. “Last March” rolls in with thunderous toms and a post-metal-like melody before Niffenegger regales us with tales of poplar groves and winter. A bridge full of endless echoes and a jangly jam spice up the middle of the song, while the final fade-out is the definition of psychedelic.
This is the template followed throughout most of Torchlight: up-tempo four-minute bangers full of wizardy lyrics, layers of guitars, and the occasional organ. It works more often than not. “Adamantine” is a fast-paced rocker all about a heavy metal known as adamantine. Cheesy as hell, but also catchy. “Psalm 6” features the album’s slickest riff, coupled with occasional blastbeats. The best recent comparison to these songs would be Uncle Acid’s “Blood Runner,” although New Light Choir write songs more suited to Dungeons & Dragons than Jack the Ripper. That song, along with “Stardust and Torchlight,” are highlights here. “Moondawn Mirage III” is the only track to change things up, being a mid-paced piece with vocals only at the end, atop shimmering acoustic guitars and keys. Sure, each song has brief moments of uniqueness, but not enough to truly stand out.
While New Light Choir have written their strongest album yet, there’s still room to grow. The songs tend to blend into each other after a time. The pacing varies little, and Niffenegger’s vocals dominate the mix so much that, despite his charisma, one grows weary. Taken in small doses, the songs on Torchlight are engaging and effective, but as a ten-song album the sheen wears off. The arrangements vary slightly, but not enough to maintain the positive vibes that come with fewer listens. In short, it seems like we’re listening to the same really good song over and over, and that hampers replayability.
While I was hoping for Torchlight to break past the 3.0 barrier, don’t let the fact that the band didn’t do so deter you. New Light Choir have advanced their songwriting and production beyond previous efforts, and while this album might not last months in any playlist rotation, for immediate gratification one can’t go wrong. The pair are on an upward trajectory, and the last remaining piece of the puzzle is a diversification in their songwriting portfolio: they need to take the brief moments scattered throughout Torchlight and expand on those, to lead us further into the realms of weirdness.