‘I’m a powerful soldier’ Death of the Maiden frontwoman Tamara sings on Soldier, one of the singles from the Oxford baroque pop outfit’s excellent self-released debut album The Girl with the Secret Fire. It’s an empowered refrain, but one that matches its sentiment with a resigned regret, feeling sad even as it heads into battle.
That’s very much what this all-female four piece is all about, they sing slow, sad ballads, but they’re not without a strong streak of feminist militancy, in both their music and how they carry themselves – god forbid any moron stupid enough to talk during the quieter moments of their live set. And the way they’ve packed out the legendary Jericho Tavern in Oxford for the album’s launch shows that it’s a approach that’s cutting through.
The venue is a regular haunt for Tamara, who puts on monthly gigs as the brilliantly named All Tamara’s Parties, giving both local and touring bands a welcoming, inclusive place to play on diverse bills. Tonight, the line-up features the surprisingly heavy post-rock of Ghosts in the Photograph, who fuse the spacey tendencies of Explosions in the Sky with the heft of Tool, coming out sounding something like a heavy Mogwai, and exuberantly scrappy pop punk two-piece Jeff, whose irresistible lo-fi bangers sit somewhere between Frankie Cosmos and the Ramones, with a healthy splash of don’t care silliness that reminds me most of London pop punks Charmpit.
When DOTM take to the stage, it’s like a homecoming. I said above that DOTM are an all-female band, which is the kind of thing I kind of wish I didn’t have to mention, but it’s important. Even though Oxford’s local music scene (and indeed the wider UK scene) has much more diversity than it used to, the fact that DOTM are still something of a novelty here proves that there’s a long way to go. Speaking to VultureHound after the show, the band explain: “You can’t be what you can’t see. It’s not just about making people feel good or doing the right thing, it’s about showing people that anyone can make music. It’s important to diversify the kind of music that gets made and the type of stories that get told.”
That idea about telling different kinds of stories reveals a lot about the band, and the mission they’re on. This is an album that wears its literary influences on its sleeve – two songs are heavily and explicitly inspired by Thomas Hardy novels, Tess by Tess of the d’Urbervilles and A Pair of Blue Eyes by the book of the same name. But drama, character, and storytelling play a big part on every song. This a dramatic band, and that seeps into everything they do. In the press release for this album the band describe themselves as sounding like a ‘like the soundtrack to a frantic, nineteenth century carriage ride along a precarious cliff edge; a stormy night and black sea threatening our four heroines on board’, and, extraordinarily, given how over-the-top that description is, it’s actually not far wrong. There’s a sense of high drama that pervades the album, both in its wildly varied dynamic and in the lyrics, which can somewhat remarkably be both rather heavy-handed and deftly devastating within a single line, as on single Tess, when Tamara sings: ‘I had a baby and I named him ‘Sorrow’. Let me hold him tonight, and I’ll bury him tomorrow.’
The band are very confident in their sound, going very big when they need to, but more importantly understanding how and when to strip it all back. Emma’s drums accentuate the songs beautifully – backing off whenever they need to give the song a bit more space, as on the excellent Waiting for You. She makes a lot of room for the verses’ waltzing piano and the beautiful chorus with just a few touches here and there, giving the song the room it needs to breathe. Even better is Hannah’s lead guitar, a masterclass in subtlety and elegance, again understanding that the song can be best served by backing off – Soldier is a great example of the way the lead guitar work to embellish the tune, rather than demanding attention, making for a gracious, generous and very distinctive approach to lead guitar.
Throughout the record, Tamara’s voice is wonderful, a beautiful and powerful light in the fog, radiating strength and yet opening up to expose genuine emotion with ease. She’s never better for me on the album than when rasping the word ‘mud’ in the line ‘What is a poet when his words are gone? A chewed-out throat in the mud’ on one of the album’s highlights The Walls are Wider. New bassist Jenny doesn’t appear on the record, but live she’s added a heft to the band’s live act, and a great tendency to lean into the louder moments.
Opener Horses seethes with the band’s darker tendencies, indulging a predilection towards romanticism as it introduces a recurring theme of water, with Tamara singing ‘we throw ourselves in the water’, and imagining it as it ‘pulls her down under’. It also roots itself in the past as it looks to the future – there are shades of suffragette Emily Davison’s death walking out under the King’s horse in 1913 as Tamara sings ‘The horses they come, they hit me they hit me.’
The other singles, Tess and Soldier, continue to indulge the darker side of the band, but The Girl with the Secret Fire is really at its best when it gives itself the space to broaden out its sound and find some light. The brilliant Waiting for You works through a darker sound in the verses, but opens everything up on the beautiful chorus, as though bursting through clouds to bask in the sunlight above them.
The album’s best song, Dream of Drowning, has an ethereal quality, with graceful and restrained composition that wonderfully captures the sense of dreaming, as once again the band demonstrate their confidence in the material by backing off to give the song all the space it needs to work. This carries through to the launch show, as in a moment of magic Tamara works her way through the crowd to stand on a bench at the back of the venue to deliver a spellbinding unplugged rendition to an enraptured crowd.
The album won’t be for everybody, and it can be somewhat indulgent, but if you forgive the more dramatic and romantic tendencies you’ll find a collection of beautifully produced, elegantly arranged ballads that brim with the confidence of a band who know exactly who they are and what they’re doing. And the future is bright for DOTM. Now that the album is out (which the band describe as feeling ‘like a bowel expulsion you’ve been storing up for a while; huge relief, happiness, and then pride’ – they’re funny, as well as dramatic) they’re knuckling down on the next record. One song in particular that appears in their encore, called Trouble, is an enormously powerful ballad that demonstrates that the Secret Fire powering this band still has a lot more fuel to burn.