Brighton’s Esben & the Witch make enough noise to wake the dead. Named after a Danish fairy tale that’s either about a resourceful young boy who uses his brains to outsmart a witch or about a poor witch who is repeatedly harassed by a conniving young boy, the trio churn out a moody goth-rock racket distinguished by darkly magisterial guitars and the odd timekeeping synth, with Rachel Davies’ hearty cries rising dramatically above the din.
Each track on their full-length debut, Violet Cries, contains its own distinctive musical, some flourish to illuminate it from the insides. “Battlecry/Mimicry” generates its electric tension with martial snare and dreamscape murmurs, while “Light Streams” clamps Davies’ modulated vocals to a giallo guitar theme, as if soundtracking the singer’s murder. It’s not surprising that Esben & the Witch have already developed a reputation as a powerful live act.
On record, however, there is little to tie these ideas together and give shape to these songs. Esben & the Witch emphasize sonics to the neglect of songwriting, which means Violet Cries moves by mysterious ebb and flow, rambling with little purpose or destination. It is, for all intents and purposes, an instrumental album, albeit one with a fuzzy sense of composition. This could be an intriguing strategy for avoiding goth rock’s congenital melodrama, and it works best on “Eumenides” and “Hexagons IV” when Davies’ voice blurs into the music, reduced to its most tactile elements.
But there’s something disingenuous and frustrating about this tack, as if they’re merely covering up their own weaknesses and shortcomings. As a result, Violet Cries is broadly, nebulously goth, with very little to distinguish the band from their peers and forebears. They get the mood right in the most general sense, but never do explain why they’re robbing this particular grave.