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. No, it’s something more devious, more wickedly pleasurable and thick with ethereal aural enchantment.
Esben and the Witch sit in the centre of an abstract musical Venn diagram; positioned between skittering electronica, seared folk and heavy psychedelic overtones; complete with a crayon of prog rock to shade in the crossover. It’s a concoction that in all honesty, probably shouldn’t work out. But there is tremendous talent within this band, with the ability to construct dense, brooding and unsettling soundscapes at the flick of a switch, the beat of a drum or the slash of a plectrum; all crowned by Rachel Davies's ghostly cries, moans and enticements. In many respects, her unfettered, pagan incantations remind you a touch of Florence Welch’s more 'out there' moments. But only if you imagine it is Florence’s evil twin locked away in the attic, cackling manically, fermenting berries and quoting WB Yeats to the moon.
The album has a starkly unique vocabulary, with Portishead’s Third being the only recallable recent record to feature such a diverse web of influences. It rapidly shuttles between fragility and chaos: the tone set from the second that the uneasy peace of opening track ‘Agyria’ is monumentally shattered and jump-started midway through. ‘Marching Song’, unveiled on last years EP remains as hypnotically potent as ever, rearing up from a chainsaw riff as Davies’ cries grow more hysterical. What is striking is how the band can vary their style and still maintain a consistently high standard. Whereas ‘Marine Fields Glow’ trembles with translucent, skeletal piano, ‘Chorea’ gurns and groans with dubstep-inflected pops and crackles. It’s a frequently unsettling listen: the band have a propensity to stack dense guitar effects and multiple vocal parts on top of each other until it becomes a claustrophobic, intimidating experience. Nothing however, can match the stunning ‘Eumenides’. For two minutes, it is a circling, dreamlike combination of arpeggios and double-tracked vocals before suddenly veering into a radio-static storm of paranoia. Settling back into tranquil bliss however, you simply cannot predict the astonishing way that the track suddenly and unexpectedly explodes into a maelstrom of heady tribal beats and vibrant, flickering colour, with Davies screaming about “silver bullets” and “broken hearts”. In both concept and execution, it is simply astounding. And then there is the closing ‘Swans’, possibly the closest nod to Portishead on the record, film-noir guitar motifs dancing closely and dangerously with Rachel’s bruised vocal. Being Esben and the Witch, there’s always something dark and disturbing afoot. They have their influences, sure. But they do their own thing in a glorious, gorgeous manner.
It is difficult to listen to individual tracks from Violet Cries. And to be honest, fairly pointless. The album works as a coherent journey: each track effortlessly passing the baton on to the next with fluid momentum, while the music flits down from the caverns and arches like ecstasy-infused vampire bats. Eventually, you are overtaken by its delectable, mystical wonder that leaves you gasping, striving and struggling to stay within your senses. And then when it’s over, you feel cheated: dragged out of this unearthly beauty and returned to the real world. Which feels somewhat more grey, dull and frigidly unresponsive after the disc finally spins to a stop.
Violet Cries is a record of exceptional class and calibre, a band doing things in a comprehensively new way: blending poetry, sounds and obscure textures together into an intoxicating draught. Put simply, no-one else is making music like this right now. More pleasingly, it is further evidence that, for the first time in four or five years, we are starting to see bands emerging into the mainstream (let’s call it The xx Factor) that have the capacity to look beyond the standard verse/chorus/repeat template and begin to push the boundaries that little bit further. Esben and the Witch have many highly commendable attributes, but the greatest of these is the ability to take an idiosyncratic musical viewpoint from the other side of a broken mirror; wickedly reflecting their vision through spinning, shattered fragments. It never fails to be less than beautiful, instinctive and profoundly enchanting. Whichever road they happen to tread next, it’ll be worthwhile following in their footsteps.
9David Edwards's Score