Ain't nothin' but a G-thing baby. Well only if G is for "Goth", obviously.
Batten the hatches! Close the curtains! Hide under the bed! Wait, that's where the monster usually lives, so I'd scrap that. But prepare for pant-filling horror! This bewitching trio may've flown in from 'Partytown' Brighton, not 'Eerie', Indiana, but Esben and the Witch can cackle 'n' stir with the best of 'em. Don't be fooled by that goofy name, either, which conjures up 'hilariously mismatched' buddy cop shows... No! This is serious. Esben and the Witch wish to drive you to hell... and back, luckily. Their debut is a relentless, spooktacular assault on the senses. They wanna blow your minds and your speakers. From first blood "Argyria" to the exasperated death rattle of "Swans", Violet Cries is an Olympic staring contest. I'll give you a tip: neither Esben nor the Witch will ever, ever blink.
The convulsing "Argyria" (basically "The Great Gig in the Sky" played by the Ungrateful Dead) proves a perfectly fitting welcome into the last house on the left. You're on their manor now, and things are different down there. They play in the dark. Named after an enchanting skin disease, this instrumental's folkways soon surrender to orgiastic blasts of crashing riffs and naked wood nymphs groaning as they turn into wolves. When Head Witch Rachel Davies reveals herself, it's quite deceptive to hear her beautiful, poetic, Olde English lilt. I instantly recalled how, in my youth, all goth girls were eloquent, literate, but exceptionally posh. But don't let Davies' calming tones disarm you...
Violet Cries builds such a towering wall of spooky white noise, it could be renamed 'Phil Spectre'. Like the White Room in Poltergeist, it sucks you in with a banshee's force and blows you out the other side covered in green goo. In other words, bring lots of rope. "Marching Song" echoes early Florence and the Machine re-possessed by Siouxsie Sioux sending her skeleton crew to watery graves. "Your boots are sinking! Lost in the blackness". Accompanied by Godzilla on drums and a hound of hell on guitar, it's infinitely more memorable than a rainy Monday in Blackpool. The twitching "Light Streams" is equally loco. Picture the spasmodic soul of a pissed Sinead O'Connor gatecrashing a respectable tea 'n' scones séance. "I will hunt down the one that burns out the beacon!" scolds Davies. Disembodied voices bounce off the walls like ghosts in the machine, and it soon becomes so chaotic you'd half expect Marty Feldman's head to roll out and start singing "I ain't got no boooody".
There are tiny moments of serenity. The pining guitar and forlorn voice of "Marine Fields Glow" ripples reflections from Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren" beneath its depths. The evil dread still grips though, as if standing on the white cliffs of Dover watching the sun fall for the last time. You can feel the sounds circling, swaying, waiting. There is unusual beauty in the lyrics. "There's nothing else for us to do here but cut the sun from its mooring" concludes Davies on "Light Streams". Riddled with references to mythology, medicine, massacres, and magick, it's a treasure trove of imagery and opens a macabre new world to explore. "A cavalcade in symmetry, commands for those to mourn / The mutes lead procession, sombre and serene". At times channelling the Manics' minister of information Richey Edwards, Esben cut much broken beauty into rock 'n' roll and it's one of their greatest strengths.
Violet Cries runs such a delicate line behind success and failure, chaos and order, it's hard to make sense of it all. Suspension of disbelief is compulsory. This is vintage goth with a poker face, but at times it teeters into ridiculousness. The BBC Workshop test card that is "Hexagons IV" is all smoke 'n' mirrors, and it's hard not to chuckle when Davies tucks you in and whispers "Just close your eyes" before bellowing "VIOLENCE!". Sometimes it's just darn style over substance, desperate to not let any trick go unplayed. "OK: band meeting. Esben? Present. Witch? Present. OK fellas, loads of great ideas, thumbs up, etc., but this is a state-of-the-art mixing desk not a Cauldron".
When the mojo rises though -- the dazzling second half -- it really kicks some apparitional ass. The "terrible hex" of the pounding "Chorea" (another disease-based ditty) blows your hair back. In a good way. Hopping from Zola Jesus' Bride of Frankenstein dark wave to John Carpenter minimalist stalker beat, it's tailor made for prancing around Pentagrams in your birthday suit. Yeah, crack open the pigs' blood, time to par-tay! The chiming, victorious "Warpath" even masks mass appeal, featuring, bizarrely, a guitar riff worthy of U2. I can just imagine the Witch, mutinous boot on amp, freak flag flapping under a blood red sky.
Violet Cries is very much an 'album', though, 40 minutes into the heart of darkness. Its final destinations are its gloomiest but brightest moments. "Eumenides" is the equivalent of spinning around feverishly, then stopping and letting the world blur and melt around you. Esben can mess with your head, create something truly beautiful, and then feverishly smash it up for kicks. "SILVER BULLETS! BROKEN HEARTS!". It's dizzying, disorientating, if admittedly a little childish. When the war's over we're left with the floating dead of "Swans", Davies' voice now cold and deflated, the wall of sound reduced to smoke and rubble.
I still don't know what to take from Violet Cries. I adore its design, passion, and sincerity. As a band, Esben and the Witch arrive like warriors, fully formed and ready to fight. I love their self mythology, their penchant for 'performances' not gigs, and how they write their lyrics on actual gothic notebooks. In a world of plastic glitz, Violet Cries is borne of blood, sweat, and tears. Its eyes bloodshot, its teeth decayed, chipped. It's '4 real' and sounds amazing. Esben aspire to build atmosphere, images -- not 'songs'. But this also brings problems. The unpredictable becomes predictable and you're floating along desperate for a hook, a melody to cling to. It's nightmares of running through the woods from a faceless shape; half of you thinks "This is bloody ace", the other half just wants to wake up. Its intensity will hopefully trigger some Scanners-style combustion throughout pop, but ultimately it's easier to admire than truly love. Either way, it'll be sensational live where ghosts can wander and bats can flap, wild n' free in their natural habitat. It's an intriguing, powerful sound, and due to the subsequent nightmares caused, I now look forward to sending Esben both my psychiatrist's and dry cleaner's bills.