Esben and the Witch began like most other bands in the general post-punk/darkwave/goth triangle. They had a cool, if disorienting name (there’s three of them and none of them are witches), evoking a slightly spooky cast of characters. They had an eerie sound, steeped in the effects-laden darkwave haze of old, with a modern sensibility and just a touch of shoegazey gauze. And, perhaps most importantly, they had a great introductory single, 2011’s “Marching Song,” which stood out as the highlight of their Matador Records debut album Violet Cries.
Five years and three albums later, that’s all mostly intact. The feedback-laden moans of “Sylvan,” the opening track on new album Older Terrors, carry some familiar tones and aesthetics, the density and length of the track—13 minutes!—showcasing the band at their most ambitious. But things have most certainly changed for Esben and the Witch, primarily that songs like “Marching Song” are essentially a thing of the past. All four tracks on Older Terrors are expansive, exploratory dirges that are by no means inaccessible, but definitely not singles. They take time to run their course and resolve themselves, each one built to stretch well beyond the limited constraints of a four-minute A-side.
“Sylvan,” or for that matter the other three tracks on Older Terrors, aren’t the first of their kind for Esben and the Witch. The UK group (now based in Berlin) had been delving into more gradually unfolding post-rock structures on 2014’s A New Nature. Here they just commit fully to bigger, more complex compositions. The band proves surprisingly adept in this format. Though they certainly could drop a shorter standout track among these other tracks—say, in the middle perhaps—and it’d work out just fine. But it’s also interesting to hear them give these songs the breathing room to reveal themselves over time and build up into something grander and more elaborate. “Marking the Heart of a Serpent” is a chilling bit of gothic folk in its opening minutes, yet halfway through explodes into a crunchy, booming occult rock beast. “The Wolf’s Sun,” by comparison, is essentially the group’s stab at doom metal, and not a half bad one at that. Given that they’re now releasing records on mostly-metal label Season of Mist, it’s a turn of events that’s neither out of question nor terribly surprising. Yet it’s the closing dirge, “The Reverist,” that’s the real showpiece, its slowly moving and gentle opening a bit like hearing a ghost caught on tape.
Esben and the Witch have progressed impressively and gradually over the past half-decade, revealing themselves to be a band that not only can evolve with each release but actually raise their ambitions each time. But then again, some things about them never change. Older Terrors, like the albums that came before, is still a mysterious, darkly beautiful collection of music.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.