After a handful of minor releases and a tour history that would lead you to believe they’ve been around for years, the 2008-formed Esben and the Witch are finally releasing their debut album on Matador Records. The first listen of Violet Cries seems almost objective in that it’s hard to instantly appreciate or quickly disregard the complex arrangement of dreary yet intriguing sonic mysticism.
The opening track, “Argyria,” starts painfully slow, letting the anxiety set in before finally opening up and soaking you in a storm of sound. And just like that, the tone is set for the entire record. Esben and the Witch have yielded many comparisons — from PJ Harvey to The XX. But where The XX provide instant gratification with overt hooks and catchy melodies, Esben and the Witch create the same atmospheric and occasionally sparse sound, but it’s laid out as a consistent challenge in its unrest and relentlessness.
Best listened to behind the wheel of a cold car on a dank street, Violet Cries quickly pulls you into a hypnotic frenzy. With no more foresight than that of a flashlight on a black night, each track is a dimly lit surprise, offering another dimension of a band that’s clearly living in more than our Earthly three. And as major label debuts often do, Esben and the Witch’s first real full-length contains songs ranging from their demo days to recent studio projects, all of which are freshly recorded, of course. There are several standouts among them, but I prefer the strenuous subtlety and slow build-up found on several tracks beyond the opening number. These are the unashamed and extremely intriguing, with lyrics such as “I will hunt the one that burns…there’s nothing else for us to do here but cut the sun from its glory,” as heard in “Light Streams,” a pseudo-tribute to Nikola Tesla. And who doesn’t love a good historically significant electrical engineer reference now and then?
(Matador Records, 304 Hudson St., 7th Floor, New York, NY 10013)