The recent publication of the BBC Sound of 2011 list may have seen much talk centre on one James Blake, but it was perhaps more notable for the inclusion of Brighton trio Esben and the Witch. With a sound that’s unrelentingly dark and inaccessible, their presence seemed to provide further evidence that the line between the mainstream and the ‘underground’ (if such a concept even exists anymore) is more blurred than ever. It didn’t end there: they recently went viral when comedian/actor Jack Black gave his verdict on their new record in a blindfold test for German magazine Intro.
Pitchfork could do worse than hire Jack Black, because – tongue-in-cheek humour notwithstanding – he pretty much nailed the vibe of “Asspen” and the Witch’s debut LP Violet Cries: “something grim and foreboding, dark and cavernous…it deals with death. It’s very evocative…someone spent a lot of time in the studio making sure this was eerie and creepy”. However, the world hasn’t lacked for dark, cavernous or eerie music lately: the reverb-laden dramatics of Zola Jesus or the haunted dub-drone of Demdike Stare come to mind, while numerous ‘witch house’ acts have taken both sonic and visual inspiration from gothic, nightmarish tropes. While all of the aforementioned have other aspects to their sound (be it chopped and screwed hip hop signifiers or classical pop structures), Esben and the Witch are seemingly all about the doom and the darkness. Violet Cries is as consistent in its bleak vision and aesthetic as, say, The Cure’s Pornography or Scott Walker’s The Drift. The tempos and dynamics may frequently shift from funereal to frenzied or from hushed to cacophonous, but the overall tone remains the same: oppressive and ominous.
The problem with this kind of approach is that when it falls short, it comes across as all style and no substance; or worse yet, grey and monotonous. Occasionally you get a glimpse of the kind of elemental, enveloping power Esben and the Witch are aiming for. ‘Marching Song’ peaks and swells impressively, the vocals of Rachel Davies (who sounds a lot like Nika Roza Danilova when she gets going) matching the dramatic, windswept arrangement, while ‘Hexagons IV’ has a hypnotically menacing edge to it. For the most part though, Violet Cries is a wearying listen, its drawn-out tension and pounding climaxes proving equally tiresome. The sound of 2011? Things are depressing enough, thanks.