As concerns works of art, comfort is highly overrated. In music, as it is with visual art, film or literature, familiarity has its place, but the pursuit of work too overtly safe or nostalgic can offer diminishing returns. That isn’t to say that a band who does a straightforward punk rock or power pop sound extremely well doesn’t deserve praise or attention, but the most interesting music usually requires one to step out of his comfort zone. Exceptional music challenges listeners and introduces them to something foreign or unfamiliar. That does not require it to be abrasive or inaccessible; quite the contrary. But music that nudges you, or better yet shoves, outside your comfort zone is often that most likely to capture the attention.
Esben and the Witch, a British trio named for a Danish fairytale in which a boy kills a witch, is just the kind of band that prods listeners with a curious mixture of mesmerizing melodies and unsettling atmosphere. That I’ve already had a few heated discussions about the band with people who found their debut album Violet Cries bothersome or abhorrent speaks to the kind of divisiveness that these melodic provocateurs inspire (but then again I never expected anyone to express such open animosity toward Vampire Weekend or Arcade Fire). Indeed, Esben and the Witch’s brand of effects-laden goth pop is a creature as seductive as it is dissonant and eerie, owing as much to the darkened post-punk anthems of Siouxsie and the Banshees as they do to the harrowing dirges of Swans. In fact, I’m going to wager that the naming of the album’s final track, “Swans,” isn’t coincidental.
Released last year, the album’s first single “Marching Song” reveals Esben and the Witch at their most accessible. Atmospheric and ever so slightly terrifying, the song also reveals a peek into the apparitions and skeletons that creep out of each corner of the band’s music. It’s loud and ominous, escalating with a martial drum march as vocalist Rachel Davies bellows and conjures up the spooky specters that arise in its final 45 seconds. It’s a bit spooky and even a bit harsh, but also quite stunning. That their catchiest track is more Pornography than Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, however, speaks volumes about their aesthetic.
As creepy and harsh as Violet Cries sometimes can be, it doesn’t bludgeon or throttle. In fact, much of the album is quite spacious, the first evidence of which can be found in first song “Argyria.” The song crawls and slowly escalates for more than three minutes before actually reaching its noisy and powerful verse. Elsewhere, on “Light Streams,” the band takes a much breezier approach, with tribal toms and the faint ring of guitar chords whisking beneath Davies’ melancholy moan. Yet when the band locks into a catchier, harder hitting approach, as on the post-punk thud of “Hexagons IV” or the pulsing horror-disco of “Chorea,” the results are dazzling. Still, even after luring the listener in with a melodically beautiful highlight such as “Warpath,” Esben and the Witch transition into a jarring, atonal interlude like “Battlecry-Mimicry,” as if to make explicit their determination to avoid allowing their music to sooth or caress for too long.
Esben and the Witch are the type of band to lead the listener down strange alleyways and corridors, leaving curious and sometimes frightening surprises at each turn. It’s a dark and disorienting melodic gauntlet, but one that becomes more rewarding each time it’s navigated. It’s not an album that offers easy entry or comfort, but it provides a uniquely intense and amazing experience for those willing to accept its challenge.
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.