It’s difficult to write about that much maligned genre, Goth, without sounding like a bad observational comedian. “Remember the Goths, eh? With their black clothes? Didn’t they look miserable, eh?” Let’s face it, it’s a small step from that to asking if anyone remembers Spangles or whatever happened to white dog poo.
Esben And The Witch, as exponents of Witch House and therefore not being strictly Goth (one of the trio even wears a natty flowery shirt), make their influences clear on their debut album. This is serious, swirling, portentous rock, with stark titles such as Chorea, Swans and Eumenides. The fact that vocalist Rachel Davies sounds like a dead ringer for Siouxsie Sioux at times doesn’t help the tendency to pigeonhole.
Yet Violet Cries doesn’t sound remotely retro or dated. It helps that, as with contemporary bands such as Salem, they throw some electronic experimentalism amongst the ethereal vocals, but there’s also a determination to stick to their own path. For a band on many people’s ‘ones to watch in 2011’ list, it’s a surprisingly uncommercial listen, likely to take several plays to burrow into the consciousness.
Opening track Argyria sets out its stall perfectly – a slow, steady build up, with chiming guitar chords and low moans and coos from Davies, it suddenly bursts into life after about two and a half minutes. As should be expected of a song inspired by a condition which turns the skin blue when exposed to silver, it’s a dark listen, with references to “the strange metallic voices”.
It’s Davies who is the focal point throughout – her vocals are strong and distinctive, and she resists the urge to wail and holler. Instead, there’s more than a hint of PJ Harvey, together with the aforementioned Siouxsie, that lift many of these tracks above the run of the mill. The lack of variety here though means that there is a tendency for some songs to blend into each other – the template of swirly guitars, celestial vocals, enigmatic lyrics and a refusal to indulge in anything as old-fashioned as a chorus is never deviated from.
Sometimes, it works perfectly – as on the foreboding Warpath or the hypnotic, drum led Marching Song – and at other times, such as Chorea, Light Streams or the closing Swans, it all sounds too strung out, too self-important and, frankly, too dull. Some light to balance the shade would be welcome – at times, it all feels a bit austere and unwelcoming.
Yet when they hit form, such as on the epic Eumenides, Esben And The Witch can sound genuinely exciting. Violet Cries isn’t an easy album to get into, and it may well prove too impenetrable for the casual listener. They may not signal a Goth revival, but there’s enough promise here to justify keeping an eye on this Brighton trio.