It’s taken a year, but Britain finally has its very own answer to witch-house: Esben and the Witch, the fairy-tale-referencing Brighton trio whose Violet Cries is the first British release from Matador in seven years not under the Belle and Sebastian banner. Salem might prefer Dirty South rap, and Esben and the Witch skew goth, but both bands are all about building surface tension and ambiance experiments. The choice to mix goth abstraction with droning instrumentation is an intriguing one, and one that has led Esben and the Witch to be hyped by the NME, but Violet Cries ends up more mildly sonically interesting than engrossing. Not even a co-sign from Jack Black can change that.
Violet Cries starts out strong though, with the menacing “Marching Song,” a totemic single that slots Esben somewhere between the Kills, Siouxsie Sioux, and the Black Angels. The vocals are like listening to lead singer Rachel Davies go through scream therapy, as she builds her limited vocal range to balls-out intensity. It’s the perfect song for movie trailers; it’s got the trembling verses and instrumentation that suggests someone is about to get killed.
A film score isn’t a bad comparison for the rest of Violet Cries, since most of the album is buried underneath highly manufactured “atmosphere” that at least lends everything here a unified quality. Songs crest and fall like scenes, and the lyrics never clue you in to what’s going on here. If Hans Zimmer was locked in a cage and forced to listen to only Goth for a few years, he’d probably come up with something similar to “Hexagons IV” or “Swans.”
But once you get down to digging this out, there’s a sinking suspicion that there isn’t much underneath all the caterwauling, the reverb, the doom, the mythical song titles and the ambiance. Esben and the Witch sure can make a racket, but parsing out the minimal substance is the real challenge. Better than Salem? Definitely. A perfect debut? Not quite.