Esben And The Witch are a curious case study of a band: proof that it’s possible to very quietly become really rather heavy. A look back at their discography – five albums within eight years – gives some sense of their trajectory.
Their debut, Violet Cries, was certainly a dark record, but there were moments when it was cut through with shards of bright, even euphoric, light. Since then, they have added weight to their music gradually, subtly changing its tone and mood. Violet Cries included ten tracks over 43 minutes, whereas with 2016’s Older Terrors, they filled a similar running time with just four spacious, evocative pieces.
It’s an irony that on such a heavy album the first word sung by Rachel Davies is “Light” – on the opening A Desire For Light; this is resolved in the closing song, Darkness (I Too Am Here), but the presence of darkness can be detected throughout. Nowhere is an album bookended by darkness and light, then; perhaps an attempt to reconcile the two.
The heaviness is apparent from the get-go: A Desire For Light gets straight down to business with a rousing, pummelling volley of guitars and drums. The song ebbs and flows, but having sunk its teeth in at the outset, it never lets go, building to a furious climax. It sets the album’s tone as a collection of songs that have more in common with metal, drone and doom than the electro and mildly gothic sounds of their earlier work.
In fact, the electronics are now almost entirely absent – this is very much a guitar album, and those guitars sound as though they have been tuned downwards. Dull Gret – named after a Breughel painting depicting a woman warrior leading an army to hell – operates in a post-rock mode, cycling through highs and lows of riff and texture. As does The Unspoiled, which begins with a seriously doom-like set of guitar chords and then opens out into something more expansive and percussive before those sludgy chords re-enter. Seclusion is something in between a shuffle and a waltz, but a background drone gradually builds even as it scuttles to its conclusion.
Golden Purifier is the album’s gentlest track, but it is nevertheless ominous. “The seeds are sown,” go the lyrics at one point, and you get the sense that the resulting plants might be poisonous. There is no drumming as such, but cymbal crashes deep in the mix add to the cosseting feel. It’s a demonstration that weight needn’t be uncomfortable.
Nowhere might be heavy but it is also lean, clocking in at less than 40 minutes – wearing its weight lightly – this is also its undoing. It might be heavy, but it doesn’t imprint itself upon the listener like some of Esben And The Witch’s previous music: it has neither the immediacy of Violet Cries, nor the ambition and transformation of their third album, A New Nature. It deserves credit for how it handles its weight, and for how elegantly it balances darkness and light, but it would benefit from a little more presence.