There are a number of gloomy things that permeate Esben and the Witch’s somber debut. For one, the band itself is named for a grisly, old, Danish folk tale starring a resourceful boy, a wicked witch, and an oven. Violet Cries‘ opening track (“Argyria”) takes its name from a condition which leaves its victims’ skin and nails with a pale, bluish silver tint. Elsewhere on the record, the Brighton, England-based trio draw on an array of grim themes at varying degrees of disquiet and drama. This is hardly your standard indie, gloom-rock fare, though. Violet Cries‘ bleak sense of foreboding rings true throughout; The dirges here are truly funereal, the calculated theatrics never go too overboard, and the slow-burners literally crackle at the corners.
Esben and the Witch are hotly tipped for a lot of things this year, most conspicuously being “the next big thing” in gloomy indie rock. After putting out a pair of well-received EPs, one of the most unflinchingly brutal music videos in recent memory, being named finalists in BBC’s Sound of 2011 poll, and opening for Foals and The xx, the trio finally hit the studio to record this stellar debut long-player. Much of the record’s success lies in how easily Esben and the Witch make the listener forget that the path they follow(foggy vocals, delay-heavy guitars, and an ominous mood) is already well-worn. While the trio’s sound recalls many bands both old and new (Pornography-era the Cure, Dead Can Dance, Warpaint), it’s hard to recall many who’ve combined the aforementioned bands’ dazed gloom, humorless deadpan, and command of mood-setting dynamics into so cohesive and listenable a package.
One of Violet Cries’ best qualities is the band’s decision to forgo a direct strike at the jugular, instead opting for a slow, yet no less ruthless, assault on the listener. It would make perfect sense that a debut album with the hype that Violet Cries carries would charge out of the proverbial gates, vying with all the band can muster for some sort of memorable, instantly gratifying ear-worm. To the contrary, the unsettlingly patient ambiance that begins with album opener “Arygia”, though, sets a rather unnerving tone. The track (and the tension) build as the addition of pounding drums and vocalist Rachel Davies’ effected yells enter the mix. The track grows to a discordant buzz, droning and thudding away, until the haze clears for the track’s considerably calmer second half.
From here, the trio segue directly to the chilling clanking of “Marching Song”, the album’s star track. The band reworked it from the version that appeared on last year’s Marching Song EP, somehow adding to the song’s dense air without detracting from its awesome power. Perhaps what’s best and most memorable about the song, and Violet Cries as a whole, is the fact that they never fully reach the crescendo you’re expecting. “Marching Song” swells in glorious fashion, adding layers of reverberant, murky guitars. Just it approaches a furious peak, though, the music ends, moving directly into the next song. The album rarely relents, waxing and waning in crests of swirling guitars, doleful synths and a general air of disquiet that never quite allows the listener to settle into the ambiance, even until the chiming guitar and eerie choral vocals that close out the especially perturbing “Swans” fade into the chasm from whence the record came.
Esben and the Witch’s divergence from ordinary song structure proves to be both their biggest strength and weakness on Violet Cries; The trio showcase their mastery of atmospherics and cinematic ability to conjure up vivid imagery instead of mining for a simple hook or a formulaic verse-chorus-verse song. Though this approach makes for a cohesive record, it also reveals how opaque their grim-faced mask is. While some of the album’s best moments come as the band embrace their more theatrical side (the riveting war song/interlude that is “Battlecry/Mimicry” for instance) and much of the album sounds stunning in context, much of it is hardly memorable, especially upon repeated listens. “Hexagons IV”, for instance, literally plods along quite unforgettably, while the hazy “Eumenides” closes on the closest thing to a rave-up this most austere trio seems able to muster up, all as an uninspired chorus of: “Silver bullets, silver heart” echoes all around. There certainly are remarkable and rewarding moments to be found here, though: “Warpath”, one of the album’s highest points, is the trio’s sole attempt at a normal sort of chorus, and “Chorea” finds the band working subtle electronics into their mix to great effect. All in all, Violet Cries echoes many of Esben and the Witch ‘s influences (be they gothic fairy tales or dense post-punk), while managing to sound quite unlike anyone in recent memory, and consequently making good on the considerable promise they’ve shown.