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Review: Natasha Khan Is Not Out of the Woods on SEXWITCH’s ‘SEXWITCH’

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: September 25, 2015
Label: Echo/BMG

Natasha Khan has always been a bit of a witch. The British singer came out glitter-streaked and face-painted on Bat for Lashes’ debut Fur and Gold, speaking of wizards and dead love while harpsichords twinkled in the background. On follow-up Two Suns, she was an earthly mystic, her new wave-meets-new age music spinning tales of star-crossed love and the planets’ alignment. Even her last record, The Haunted Man, found Khan wrestling with ghosts over spare synth-pop, often echoed by a cult-evoking choir.

Khan is a true gothic artist in her aesthetic, all highly decorated scenery and death-tinged romanticism. But if Bat for Lashes’ three albums are apt for playing in some sprawling, candle-lit church, her debut as SEXWITCH is best heard out in some moonlit forest. Because while SEXWITCH fits Khan’s enchanted history, this is a project that demands a much more physical and primal darkness from its frontwoman.

Made in collaboration with the British rock band TOY and producer Dan Carey, SEXWITCH is a covers record of sorts. It’s a collection of English-translated ‘70s and ‘60s fantastic folk songs Khan found from Iran, Morocco, Thailand and North America, each one culling from the heavily percussive, psychedelic music of its respective region. The record vibrates with passion throughout as thumping drums, tambourines, and punchy bass lines weave in and out of Khan’s freaky vocal stylings.

“He addicted me and I addicted him,” Khan sings over and over, her shaky voice growing in intensity over clanging bells and bongos on “Ha Howa Ha Howa.” The funky “Helelyos” plays like the most contemporary of the batch, punctuated by a post-punk evoking bass part that makes the track sound more like a Savages song than a folk track dusted off from Iran. The gem here is the nearly eight-minute “Kassidat El Hakka,” featuring a hypnotizing electric guitar riff as the song’s unsettling centerpiece. “Life has no time here, I am fleeing but I do not know what from,” Khan repeats with fervor, before her voice erupts into screams: “When I die I am going back to what I was  nothing.”

Even though the record is pulling from material that’s not the band’s own, it feels improvisational in composition. You can hear how the group, Khan especially, got themselves into a deep trance by shaking, banging, and noodling their instruments as the songs (which all wail past the four-minute mark) descend into frenzied emotion. The project feels far removed from Khan’s work with Bat for Lashes, particularly the delicately composed and highly romantic The Haunted Man; not necessarily a step in an automatically better direction, though it’s a different and more interesting one for Khan at least. There’s a fire started here that hasn’t even been sparked in the Bat for Lashes realm, and what will be interesting is to see if the former project bleeds into the latter in the future.

What’s most interesting here is Khan’s voice, completely uninhibited and animalistic in its moans and screams. “When I was singing… it did feel like I was channeling some sort of ancestral feelings about witches,” Khan said in one interview. “I kept feeling witch spirits and people that had been burned and repressed and pushed down.” Spell-casting pop and Twitter branding this is not; the excellent force of this album is how it taps into the sheer pain, anger, and sensuality of the idea of “the witch,” rather than its archetypal signifiers in pop culture. “We don’t want any strangers to come between us,” Khan sings on “Helelyos.” “Our dark girls are setting fire to our souls.”