Album Review: Esben and the Witch – Violet Cries

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A lot of hideous genre labels have been thrown at Brighton (England)-based trio Esben and the Witch—trendy critic stuff like “witch-house,” “dubstep,” and “goth.” I get the “goth” label, I suppose, because throughout the 10 brooding tracks on Violet Cries, the band appears to be exorcising some serious demons.

“Dubstep?” Not exactly: These tracks are too band-oriented and energetic to fall into that category. “Witch-house?” Now that just sounds silly.

Call them whatever you want, but on their debut full-length, Esben and the Witch mainly just sound like a refreshingly authentic art-rock band.

And the key word there is “band.” These tracks, for all their studio manipulation and densely crafted structures, sound like the work of a tight unit—the effects-drenched, larger-than-life guitars and swirling electronics of Daniel Copeman and Thomas Fisher sword-fight Rachel Davies’ sexy martian melodies and propulsive percussion.

Vocally, Davies recalls The xx’s Romy Madley Croft, another British frontgirl who uses her voice as an aphrodisiac, moaning and crooning in a style that feels soulfully out-of-place in today’s indie-rock. But where Croft’s melodies really pop in her band’s stark, spacious and minimalistic arrangements, Davies has a lot of noise to deal with—caterwauling guitars creaking in every nook and blasts of drum kit in every cranny. In a way, Esben and the Witch are the maximalist flipside to The xx’s stripped-down euphoria.

There are definitely hooks on Violet Cries, if you like your choruses wrapped in barbed-wire and melted in a psych-rock microwave. But Esben and the Witch get most of their moody mileage out of atmosphere—in fact, it’s hard to remember the last time anybody did so quite this well. “Marine Fields Glow” is slow-motion psychedelia, building layers of reverb on Davies’ far-away cave-dweller voice, frolicking in dreamy texture and never quite climaxing. Launching pad “Argyria,” meanwhile, is contrastingly live-wired, with guitars short-circuiting and drums as huge as the Grand Canyon.

The overlapping layers of “Light Streams” are downright impressive—the guitars sound so clean and intimate, you might as well be listening from inside the amps. An arctic-chilled bass moans; cymbals pan from in the stereo field. Close your eyes, turn out the lights and light some incense. This is real-deal, space-age, transformative shit. Three-and-a-half minutes in, the torrential psych wind suddenly drops to an eerie buzz: an expanse of ethereal quiet rarely heard on a rock album.

Amazingly, Esben and the Witch are just as good at silence as they are noise. Actually, they revel in dynamic shifts—if any album in recent memory begs for a good pair of headphones, this would be it.

Violet Cries exists lightyears away from blogs and buzzwords. It’s an album built on a spirit of adventure—grasping, armed with alien abstraction and slow-motion soul, at an imaginary world waiting just outside the window.

2011 may still be in its infancy, but Esben and the Witch have crafted what will surely hold up as one of the year’s most thrilling debuts.

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