** Edition of 300 copies. Cover art by Gary Jo Gardenhire, design by Philip Marshall ** In pursuit of the haunted muse that’s informed John Duncan’s boundary-pushing work since the late ‘70s, and which has lit up the iDEAL catalogue over the past half decade, ’Soft Eyes’ renders Duncan’s oblique reading of the psychic zeitgeist in subtly contrasting sides of furtively rhythm-driven and richly atmospheric songcraft. In keeping with his reputation as a sort of avant garde shaman or psychopomp, there’s something unfathomably timeless and ineffably eternal about his work on ’Soft Eyes’, which follows the course of his modern classics such as the songbook of wizened covers ‘Bitter Earth’ (2016), and last year’s ‘Red Sky’ 2CD, without feeling like he’s retreading old ground, and still sounding vitally unusual.
The record’s first half centres on Duncan’s thoughts on social energy and failure, from crowds to tribal gatherings, in a low-key but extraordinary style. Chamber wind meets a metallic pulse somewhere between dembow and Yemeni folk to underline his achingly hoarse vocals on ‘The Rabid Position’, while the lurking vox of ’Say No’ smartly reaffirms his counter-cultural cache, and the queered ambience of ‘Homecoming’ sees him slip into a sort of curdled tribal reverie. On the other hand, the B-side dwells in a starker, more intimate half light, with songs stripped to a spectral quintessence between the petal-fall keys and prickly sax of ‘Foreplay’, a face freezing, ASMR-triggering beauty titled ‘Frenzy’ (featuring synth and mixing from Eiko Ishibashi), and an unmissable, abyss-hovering vision ‘Resolve’, and pooling into the miasmic folk strings and stygian glyde of ‘The Beautiful Attempt.’