It’s always intriguing when an album arrives with such overwhelmingly supportive coverage that it runs in complete opposition to your own impression. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but it always make you question what are they hearing that you aren’t? When a closer look is taken at Brighton three-piece Esben and the Witch, you witness an act so esoteric and dark in nature that they would’ve instantly been dismissed as grandiose and gothic by the music press in search of tastier morsels. The fact that they haven’t, can only suggest there’s been a considerable sea change in music over the past year.
The most direct comparison to Esben and the Witch is the arcane tribalism of 80s act Dead Can Dance, but even to say “it sounds like Dead Can Dance” is to invoke a style of music long fallen from view. What persists here a something akin to the sound of Dead Can Dance with a touch of Florence & The Machine, or PJ Harvey, if she were raised by Druids. As powerful and uncompromising as they sound, Esben and the Witch are an anomaly. Being the first UK signing by Matador Records in 6 years lends their work some legitimacy, although had Violet Cries been released on archetypal art pioneer label 4AD, it would’ve been a fait accompli.
An ominous hum, a splash of cymbals, an urgent dance beat that doffs its cap into the nu-goth realm of artists that includes Austra and Zola Jesus, opening track “Argyria” flails around with wailing voices that seem to speak another language. The martial floor tom beat and power drill guitar that introduce “Marching Song” burrow down into the core of Bauhaus’ snarling “Dark Entries” but then bury themselves in a mire of menace and over-effected tension. And so it goes for the next 40 minutes or so. Esben and the Witch are adept in creating their own wuthering heights to undulate in (“Eumenides”) or “dance themselves to death” (“Chorea”), but it’s of such limited appeal.
Ultimately there are going to be records that are so densely obscured by their artistic vision that to full appreciate them, you have to be them. Each track is barely discernable from one another, charted only by the ebb and flow of Rachel Davies’ vocals that either sound like Siouxsie Sioux in the company of real banshees, or indulgent gothic navel gazing. With the dominating mood one of bloody ramparts and disease, hinted at in song titles like “Chorea“ and “Battlecry/Mimicry“, Violent Cries is a disorientating, tortured and unnerving record. Perhaps the very effect Esben and the Witch were after.