Album Review: Esben and the Witch – Older Terrors

By on Friday, 2nd December 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

Header photo by William van der Voort

Esben and the WitchAll three members of gothic rock trio Esben and the Witch, Thomas Fisher (guitar/keyboards), Daniel Copeman (electronics/guitars) and Rachel Davies (vocals), have recently relocated to Berlin from their former base in Brighton. Along with the geographic broadening of their horizons, the band appear to have expanded their musical boundaries as well. Their latest release ‘Older Terrors’ looks, on the surface, like an EP, with only four songs on its tracklisting. But its total running time of 46 minutes is actually lengthier than both of the last two albums I’ve recently reviewed. (For reference, Skinny Lister’s ‘The Devil, the Heart & the Fight’ packed 12 concise songs into 36 minutes, and Bell X1’s ‘Arms’ kept to a svelte 9 tracks and 38 minutes.)

What does this mean? Have Esben and the Witch recorded four exceptionally prolonged alt-pop songs, or have they composed four miniature symphonies? I wasn’t familiar with the band before listening to ‘Older Terrors’, and I found it difficult to answer that question without context. My ambiguous first impressions of the album were of dramatic, slowly evolving musical arrangements geared toward creating a dark, ominous ambience, and a singer whose voice is by turns ethereally beautiful and emotionally tortured, often a blend of both.

A quick virtual trip through TGTF’s archive of past coverage on Esben and the Witch served to confirm my initial thoughts. In a a 2010 Bands to Watch feature, our writer remarked that “lead singer Rachel’s voice does, at times, bear a strong similarity to that of Florence Welch”. A review of the band’s debut LP ‘Violet Cries’ talks about the “Brighton trio’s fixation with darkness . . . feelings of dread and solemnity, [and] the overriding sensuality of it all.” Editor Mary used the words “eerie”, “sinister” and “haunting” to describe videos from Esben and the Witch’s second LP ‘Wash the Sins Not Only the Face’ and the phrase “stark and forlorn” to describe ‘Dig Your Fingers In’, the first single from third album ‘A New Nature’.

Looking back upon ‘A New Nature’, we can see Esben and the Witch starting to explore longer, and more expansive musical arrangements: two songs on that record are over 10 minutes long, and three others are over 6 minutes in duration. With ‘Older Terrors’, the band has completely set aside any preconceived notions of writing songs within a 3-minute box, instead choosing to develop musical ideas in a fashion more typical of classical composers than rock musicians.

[youtube]https://youtu.be/Aa0jVxNcg8Q[/youtube]

Opening song ‘Sylvan’ is comprised of three distinct sections, Davies’ serpentine vocal melody weaving through each, loosely holding them together with a series of indistinct but strangely evocative words and phrases. The primitive drum beat and slow harmonic tempo of section one gives way through an extended guitar riff to a stark, anticipatory middle section and ultimately to a dynamic and dramatic climax in the third and final section.

The minor key Spanish guitar melody warms but doesn’t disguise the sinister undertones in ‘Marking the Heart of a Serpent’. Davies’ vocal tone is once again light and limber in the fluid melodic line, almost hypnotic in quality, and it leads the unsuspecting listener to a bit of a shock in the dynamic attack of the song’s middle section. The lyricless instrumental frenzy of section three stretches into a coda that runs out of steam rather than coming to a conclusive finish.

‘The Wolf’s Sun’ opens with the protracted growl of guitars and singularly Gothic-sounding lyrics: “so lead me through the dark / your fingers clawing at my heart / clutching me against your breast / inside your crook, I’ll lay my head”. The hypnotic initial combination of steady bass ostinato and amorphous vocal melody evolves into a surprisingly groove-based middle section, and a positively primal freak out at the song’s end.

[youtube]https://youtu.be/HRBlcefrWbs[/youtube]

Closing track ‘The Reverist’ opens with a slow, hazy instrumental prelude that evokes a vague visual idea of gradually emerging from shadow into a dim and misty light. Davies’ middle section lyrics, however, twist the narrative into something more sinister with the repeated phrase “ships on fire”. The musical arrangement follows suit, growing more and more agitated before it descends into the depths of its own eventual demise.

The broadly experimental nature of ‘Older Terrors’ is to be applauded, even if the songs themselves occasionally stretch past the point of cohesion. To use a drama-related analogy, which seems appropriate for such an inherently dramatic set of songs, there are moments where the plot wears a bit thin, and its devices, in this case the instrumental arrangements, become overly convoluted. Nevertheless, ‘Older Terrors’ leaves in its wake a post-apocalyptic sense of utter stillness and of dark, delicate beauty. A massively impressive effort, and for myself, an indelible first impression.

7/10

‘Older Terrors’, the fourth album from Esben and the Witch, is available now via Season of Mist. TGTF’s complete past coverage of Esben and the Witch is collected through here.

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