When you name your band Esben and the Witch, bright and sunny pop music would appear to be the antithesis of the message you’re trying to communicate. Nobody in the band is named Esben, and as far as seemingly factual biographies go, nobody in the band practices witchcraft either. Instead, they took their name after the title of a Danish fairy tale, and unlike the cleaned up Disney versions of stuff, the tale of “Esben and the Witch” doesn’t have a happy ending. Watch the band’s video for “Marching Song”, and you’ll notice that one doesn’t exactly end on a positive note either (band members get increasingly bloody and beaten as things progress). Naming their debut full length “Violet Cries”, which is impressive and surprisingly original in and of itself, is yet another grand indicator of what you’ll be getting yourself into long before you even hear a single note of music. That the band largely succeeds at creating this gothic mood of darkness and dread is a strong testament to their talent and makes for an interesting auditory journey.
“Violet Cries”‘s first track “Argyria” stands as a pretty great introduction to Esben and the Witch on the whole. It creeps along slowly at first, all atmosphere and carefully picked electric guitar, then builds louder and louder with fuzz, distortion, heavy drumming and singer Rachel Davies breaking out her finest miserable wail. The louder things get, the more propulsive and menacing it is. In efforts to both show a high degree of restraint as well as sustain the song for nearly 6 minutes, things do calm down again so Davies can deliver some verses and trade all of that bloodlust for mere dread. And so it goes for the album’s duration, alternating between all the darkest of the dark textures underneath the rainbow, the guitars consistently buzzing like a man standing behind you with a chainsaw, the drums pounding with sledgehammer-like force, and all the while Davies writhes and moans like a woman possessed. Really it’s Davies’ strong and immense vocal range that gives Esben and the Witch most of their power. She’s able to go from porcelain doll to tortured soul at almost the drop of a hat, and it adds spice to moody pieces like “Marching Song” and “Warpath”.
Unfortunately, a sustained mood and a great voice only get you so far. Proper hooks are by no means essential for an album such as “Violet Cries”, but at the very least you’d like for the majority of songs to be distinctive and somewhat memorable. As it stands, about half the record achieves that, while the other half just sort of blends together with the same ominous atmosphere. Cohesiveness is key for a band such as Esben and the Witch, but when taken too far or on the fumes of an idea that’s not 100% fully developed, problems can arise as they do here. Ultimately it results in an album that’s smart and exciting and not so much innovative but done quite well, which is why Esben and the Witch have been earning a fair amount of buzz so far in 2011. That, and a few of their early tracks showed real promise. Most of those tracks once again make an appearance on “Violet Cries”, and they’re the ones that still stand the test of time as being among the band’s strongest. Hopefully this debut record acts more as a learning experience for the band, pointing them in a direction that will yield better, more revelatory results. For now though, we’re left with a solid soundtrack to a horror film, but one that occasionally has gaps where not much happens and the lead characters seem to forget there’s a killer on the loose. Perhaps the body count will be higher next time.