Esben & The Witch
Simon Jay Catling
, February 2nd, 2011 05:20
While there's a great deal to be said for using music as escapism, last year it all got a bit too much. Too many half-sung lyrics about fuck all in particular, which in turn were buried under forty year old jangly guitar lines drenched in swathes of cheap and cheerful reverb. Some did replace the guitars with samplers, but to little noticeable effect. Although in reality it was but a fraction of the music released in an otherwise good 2010, it's the stuff that's stuck, remained in the press and sold the concert tickets. It's understandable: the world's fucking grim and we're told about it 24/7. But for each news story there are fifty distractions you can use to block out your awareness of it, with music increasingly providing just another smokescreen. This isn't a clarion call for a load of angry, speed-induced, three-chord playing school kids to take us back to 1977, but the best acts and albums of last year recognised and evoked the times we live in - their uncertainty and the ever increasing awareness of our temporary existence. Albums such as I Like Trains' He Who Saw The Deep'; artists like perennial Quietus favourites Factory Floor - these offered truer, more realistic visions of the 21st century than the day-glo cut, paste and wash lot, even if their impact was limited by being largely confined to the margins.
Yet Violet Cries does sound like 2011. It houses dense canvasses of sound with so much going on underneath it suffocates and scrambles the senses; on other occasions it feels timid and unsure of itself, with quiet, wandering interludes asking questions of the darkness before being blotted out by returning clouds of menacing dissonance. The vocals of Rachel Davies could certainly act as a metaphor for a modern human condition, embedded within the rest of the album as they are yet striking in their insular, isolated feel: all in this together? If only we looked around to see who we're in it with. Underneath all this, below this uneasy, foreboding atmosphere are the scuttles and scratches of cold machine-made drum patterns, detached and unblinking, the unerring motorik of technology.
That may all sound a bit overzealous, but then it's merely an attempt to match the ambition of this record, doing so with something as dully tangible as words. Violet Cries is a truly affecting listen, clawing, drawing you in right from the ever increasing swirls of noise that form the foundations of 'Argyria's' cathartic opening. It's a colossus of an introduction that, in a pattern oft-repeated here on in, first blinds you and then retreats back into its cavernous darkness to reveal Davies' lost, naked vocals. 'Marching Song' follows, more orthodox in its structure with guitarist Dan Copeman crawling out from the shadows, his simple guitar hook joining Davies in a valiant effort to withstand the chorus' onslaught of engulfing distortion and pivoting electronic percussion.
To go through this record piece-by-piece does a disservice though; this hasn't been constructed as a collection of songs, but has been crafted as a whole unit, like all self-respecting long-players should. Esben & The Witch work within a constant cavern of vast space; sometimes they reach out to fill every expanse, as on 'Warpath's' crescendo, where guitar blossoms atop already towering foundations, but quite often they hide away, taking a minimal approach and allowing the nothingness to fester and gnaw.
The constant ebbing and flowing between full sonic assault and isolated intimacy, rather than more conventional rhythmic guidance, that provides the pulse of Violet Cries. They provide little clue of when these gathering bursts of momentum come either, peaks are rarely reached at songs' ends but instead come early on or in their middles, the band working themselves to passionate climax and then re-gathering breath and composure before the next ascent. Only on 'Light Streams' and 'Chorea' are there more settled inclines, and even within those there's a falling away and a retreat.
It's this intended disjointedness that captivates so; this isn't a formulaic construction of gloomy soundscaping, there are shreds of potential redemption, of instances where the band strain to escape from the black. On the lush sounding droning loops of 'Marine Fields Grow,' for example, or, most spectacularly, on three part opus 'Eumenides' which sees glittering six-strings and incongruous techno-infused rhythms emerge to provide a gloriously macabre euphoria, you sense light amidst the shade. As in the 21st century we're not entirely without hope, and Violet Cries recognises this; it is, however, also aware of the bleak uphill battle that such a belief brings with it. This is of course just music, but it evokes so much more, and in confronting our toughest realities Esben & The Witch have contrived to create a stunning document of our era.