The black sheep of the Sound of 2011, Esben and the Witch, have kept a relatively low profile since their early year release of Violet Cries. Obviously they've been doing ye olde touring/festivals in the intervening months, but it feels only too appropriate that the goth (there I've said it) trio should return with an EP of dark evocative soundscapes as the nights draw in ever earlier and the trees stand bare and skeletal.
Nothing defines Esben and the Witch's mastery of mood more than the way 'Hexagons III (The Surge)' and 'Hexagons IV (The Still)' effectively merge into one indistinguishably bleak and effective centrepiece. The white noise sear of guitar is befitting of the title 'The Surge' and the regular quake and echoing crack of the snare is like scene setting incidental sound. The unnerving musical thread that connects the two tracks is an insidious creep of the bare piano notes; on the former track higher-pitched keys worm their way around the main refrain not so much as counterpoint to the abrasive guitar roar, but more as subtle attenuation. Such is the ambiguity of atmosphere and emotion Esben and the Witch continue to deal in. As 'The Surge' bleeds into 'The Still' the sonic cacophony dissipates, but the piano still intones the same doleful theme, yet this time the higher-pitched embellishments are there from the start with the piano maintaining a more consistent presence as the bass notes resonate from the bowels and the industrial guitars dredge deep. Just when you think it's all over there's an additional minute of spare echoing piano chords, which is a superfluous extension of an atmospheric twin-centrepiece.
It certainly sounds nothing like the 'Hexagons IV' that is found on Violet Cries, but, like that record, the Hexagons EP works far more effectively in its entirety than as individual tracks in isolation. To hear 'The Surge' and 'The Still' separately is to lose all perception of their most subtle qualities, specifically the organic development of the piano theme.
That said there are tracks, which could almost stand alone. If The One Show wants a fresher combination of pensive arpeggios and programmed beats than The XX's 'Untitled; then they could do much worse than the crystalline shards of 'Hexagons II (The Flight)'. Rachel Davies' fantastic voice is an enchanting instrument of ghostly decoration throughout the EP, but on 'The Flight' she sounds unusually emotionally invested as she repeats “So wild”. You wouldn't want Esben and the Witch to sound too human - it would kind of defeat the purpose of them - but 'The Flight' benefits from the friction between the ice cold musical sentiments and Davies vulnerable vocals . The same goes for penultimate track, 'Hexagons V (The Cast)', with Davies' finding a sort of hiccuping vocal hook over the shimmer of some Let England Shake-style guitars. EP opener 'Hexagons I (The Fall)' is a bewitching combination of contemplative acoustic picking, chilling piano tinkles and dissonant background noise, but like too much of Violet Cries it fails to resolve itself satisfactorily even as melodies enchant.
The Hexagons EP is undeniably portentous in both appearance and sound. The songs are named like a classical suite, but Esben and the Witch are a group unafraid of being labelled pretentious. Luckily they've got the atmospheric chops to pull something like this off. The Hexagons EP is unlikely to change the minds of those for whom Violet Cries was too heavy on mood and too light on tunes; Esben and the Witch haven't exactly ripped up the rulebook and they still sound a little too staged and ornamental, but as far as dark gothic fantasies go this is just about the right dose.
7Neil Ashman's Score