Release Date: Feb 8, 2011
Record label: Matador
Genre(s): Indie Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter
Immersing your mind into the depths of Violet Cries, the debut album from Esben and The Witch is to experience transportation to an alternate reality. Whether you happen to be listening at home, in the car on a frozen morning or caught between twin headphones on a bustling commute, you are suddenly relocated to a bleak and blasted heath; smoke and mist rushing by your ears as the sun disappears behind the line of the horizon and the spirits begin to stir. Violet Cries is not your typical early year hype record that arrives overburdened with cheap praise, armed with identikit singles and making come-to-bed-eyes at radio playlists.
Revel in the gloom What Brighton’s Esben And The Witch have achieved is as strange as it is something to celebrate. Following 09’s EP ‘33’ the band have become a popular name check despite their dark sound. ‘Violet Cries’ drifts along in a relentlessly ominous dream, as post-rock segues hide beneath a surface of guitar fuzz, cymbal tinkering and eerie synthscapes.
The recent resuscitation of all things goth has been an American obsession, with handsome bloodsucking movie stars swaddling the mainstream and the vamped-up visages of [a]Zola Jesus[/a] et al peering from the fringes – and it’s a revival that has largely failed to take on these shores. Sure, there was 2008’s brief flurry with Scum, O Children and co, and there are still those flocking around Whitby decked out in their [a]Siouxsie & The Banshees[/a] garb. But for the rest of us, all that gloomy pouting and posturing seems a bit passé.
Esben and the Witch's debut album, Violet Cries, has such a perfectly goth title that it’s something of a surprise that it wasn’t claimed decades ago. Likewise, the band’s brooding sound bears the dark-eyed influences of Siouxsie Sioux and Miranda Sex Garden, as well as contemporaries like Effi Briest and Zola Jesus. Esben and the Witch were nominated for the BBC’s Sound of 2011 just before Violet Cries was released, and it’s easy to hear why: even when they don’t do anything remarkably new with their ethereal style, they imbue it with a tremendous amount of passion.
The video for Esben and the Witch's "Marching Song" is one of the most morbidly transfixing clips I've seen in recent years. It opens on rotating close-ups of the band's members, each cut timed to a chord change. As the song escalates, their faces grow progressively bloodier and more battered. It's rough stuff, and it becomes increasingly difficult to watch, but it wouldn't be half as unsettling without the song, which builds its descending bass line into a knee-trembling wall of guitars, with lead singer Rachel Davies' full-throated wail on top.
If the Goth groups of the 1980s inhabited a barren, T.S. Eliot-inspired wasteland, then today that same wilderness is overpopulated by like-minded bands, each one acting-out their own tableau of isolation and angst while studiously ignoring the neighbours. Goth, which in it purest form has shown a dogmatic reluctance to expand beyond a narrow vocabulary and pool of imagery, has long been in danger of becoming heritage music, in the same way that The Blues never really escaped the killing floors and endless gripes about life’s aches and pains.
Batten the hatches! Close the curtains! Hide under the bed! Wait, that’s where the monster usually lives, so I’d scrap that. But prepare for pant-filling horror! This bewitching trio may’ve flown in from ‘Partytown’ Brighton, not ‘Eerie’, Indiana, but Esben and the Witch can cackle ‘n’ stir with the best of ‘em. Don’t be fooled by that goofy name, either, which conjures up ‘hilariously mismatched’ buddy cop shows… No! This is serious.
It’s taken a year, but Britain finally has its very own answer to witch-house: Esben and the Witch, the fairy-tale-referencing Brighton trio whose Violet Cries is the first British release from Matador in seven years not under the Belle and Sebastian banner. Salem might prefer Dirty South rap, and Esben and the Witch skew goth, but both bands are all about building surface tension and ambiance experiments. The choice to mix goth abstraction with droning instrumentation is an intriguing one, and one that has led Esben and the Witch to be hyped by the NME, but Violet Cries ends up more mildly sonically interesting than engrossing.
This Brighton goth trio were the wild-card of the BBC Sound of 2011 poll. They didn't sound like anything else on the long list, because the crepuscular drama that constitutes their sound has been out of fashion for 25 years. Though Esben and the Witch are too young to have experienced the first wave of goth, they're uncannily true to the original blueprint: Violet Cries is creepy and introspective, driven by echoing guitar, minimal electronic rhythms and Rachel Davies's frozen voice.
Named after a grim Danish fairy tale, Esben and the Witch pursues a narrow course on their first album, Violet Cries, a morose, pitch-black update of the ‘80s dark-wave template. Plunging into a forbidding world of gothic influence and dense, crawling dirges, they affect a sound that, while tonally solid, feels conceptually slack and more than a little bit silly. In assembling its palette, Violet Cries leans heavily on a stable of familiar signifiers, drawing in references to witchcraft, demons, the black plague, etc.; think the Brothers Grimm, or the baroque woodland madness of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.
Brighton’s Esben & the Witch make enough noise to wake the dead. Named after a Danish fairy tale that’s either about a resourceful young boy who uses his brains to outsmart a witch or about a poor witch who is repeatedly harassed by a conniving young boy, the trio churn out a moody goth-rock racket distinguished by darkly magisterial guitars and the odd timekeeping synth, with Rachel Davies’ hearty cries rising dramatically above the din. Each track on their full-length debut, Violet Cries, contains its own distinctive musical, some flourish to illuminate it from the insides.
As a faithful handmaid of capitalism, fashion is inevitably (and paradoxically) fickle, not to say hungry. And so, when the seemingly inexhaustible veins of the punk mine finally ran dry, goth was the obvious choice for a not-unapt resurrection to the mainstream, both commercial and indie (if we can speak of an indie mainstream — and I think we both know that we can). In the former case, we witnessed the emergence of emo, but in the latter — more concerned with musical substance than the sartorial aesthetics of teen angst — bands from Cold Cave to Fever Ray to Zola Jesus (and, gentle reader, I could go on — I won’t even mention witch house), began to produce music the fortunes of which would’ve previously been confined to kissing heavily mascara’d eyelashes with Bauhaus in DJ sets played to the faithful.
An essential companion for many sombre souls in 2011 and beyond. John Doran 2011 Despite long ago casting aside its callow youth for a three-decade maturity, goth is still the most routinely mocked of all genres. It is defiantly theatrical: in both music, language and image, dealing with very potent subject matter. However, like any genre with isolationist tendencies, it gains its essential power from the very traits that make it seem confusing, repellent or risible to others.
Violet Cries is the brooding debut from Matador’s Brighton-based Esben and the Witch; filled with ghostly reverberations, it’s sometimes hard to catch the big picture here. Those difficulties are quelled throughout, and it’s hard to complain about what’s on hand, though it may be tempting. Some of the elements at play here mesh with startling verve: the guitar work culls from a variety of sources and blends them with ease, the percussion (electronic and otherwise) is driving and provides a solid base for the album’s build, the synthesizers fill the void without feeling aimless.
Now that the XX has splintered, eyes are on this British trio to take up the mantle of spookiest kids. The group even nabbed the same producer as the XX for its debut, replicating the witchy stretches of epic electro-psych. There's a little bit of early Siouxsie Sioux in Rachel Davies' voice, but there's also a bit too much restraint and not enough structure.