Album Review: Esben And The Witch – Violet Cries (Matador)

Our rating:

Brighton’s spooked trio go medieval on your asses

The recent resuscitation of all things goth has been an American obsession, with handsome bloodsucking movie stars swaddling the mainstream and the vamped-up visages of [a]Zola Jesus[/a] et al peering from the fringes – and it’s a revival that has largely failed to take on these shores.

Sure, there was 2008’s brief flurry with Scum, O Children and co, and there are still those flocking around Whitby decked out in their [a]Siouxsie & The Banshees[/a] garb. But for the rest of us, all that gloomy pouting and posturing seems a bit passé.

Disregard what you’ve heard, then, about Brighton trio [a]Esben And The Witch[/a] being the UK’s newest vault creatures – because, crucially, they’re gothic rather than goth, and possessed of a much more beguiling aesthetic. To immerse yourself in [b]‘Violet Cries’[/b] is more akin to entering a Ye Olde English fairy tale than some trashy vampire fiction, like discovering a weighty, weathered tome that lies under several thick inches of dust and recounts a distant age.

On opening track [b]‘Argyria’[/b], for example (about the condition that causes the skin to take on a bluish hue after exposure to silver) singer [b]Rachel Davies[/b] mutates into an eerie group of disembodied spirits and “metallic voices, gleaming white and breeding light”, while on [b]‘Light Streams’[/b] she vows to “hunt the one that burnt out the beacon” in a voice that wavers from stern to histrionic.

There are no hackneyed pop hooks here, either – instead, the twitching electronic pulse of [b]‘Hexagon IV’[/b] and overlapping whispered echoes of [b]‘Chorea’[/b]. But that doesn’t mean that [b]‘Violet Cries’[/b] is without some more straight-up bangers as well. [b]‘Marching Song’[/b], long a staple of live sets, offers a war cry that’s been left to fester on a blood-soaked battlefield for centuries, with Davies pounding a solitary tom-tom to lead the way into some doomed crusade.

Yet it’s a metaphysical conflict, too, as love and war become criss-crossed (“Your veins are my trenches”) and lust mingles with violence (“The mud is thick with desire”). [b]‘Eumenides’[/b], meanwhile, is twice as long, but no less arresting. Soft, almost choral openings interchange with rumbling thunder before culminating in Davies yelling: “Silver bullets! For sinners’ hearts!”

No doubt there’ll be some impatient souls who clamour for more tunes with immediate impact (especially since singles [b]‘Skeleton Swoon’[/b] and [b]‘Lucia, At The Precipice’[/b] were deemed superfluous), but demanding such fare from [b]‘Violet Cries’[/b] would be like asking Gordon Ramsay to serve you up some beans on toast: there’s a far richer and more refined set of treats on display here than any of the band’s contemporaries could rustle up. [a]Esben And The Witch[/a], then: gothic, not goth, and making the latter seem like just another four-letter word.

[b]Ben Hewitt[/b]