Since their inception in 2008, Esben and the Witch have methodically chiseled out their musical identity. Known for their darkly brooding lyrics, sound, and energy, the British trio have elicited surprise and reverie throughout their career’s trajectory. Their fifth studio album, Nowhere, released by Season of Mist, is sepulchral but its intensity is alleviated by masterful vocal and lyrical subtlety. Whereas Nowhere’s heaviness is conspicuous, the shrewd instrumentation and musicality execute the album’s ingenuity.
Nowhere only includes six tracks. With each track ranging from five to seven minutes, they unequivocally build an atmosphere replete with tension and resolution. In “A Desire for Light”, for instance, the opening two minutes are devoted to Daniel Copeman’s rampageous drums and cymbals. Crashing and heaving, a study in effective cacophony, the music reaches an intentional lull creating space for Rachel Davies’ vocals. Her voice powerfully ascends above the instrumentals designing the necessary resolve to Thomas Fisher’s forceful guitar riffs. It is too easy to categorize Davies’ vocals as the symbolic summons for light. The vocals and instruments are so interwoven the distinction between light and dark is indiscernible. Here they aptly illustrate the complexity inherent in each and every binary.
The light and dark duality is explored throughout Nowhere. Significantly, the album concludes with “Darkness (I am Here Too)” thereby affirming the light and dark coaction. The track rips open with immediate intensity, unlike “A Desire for Light” which systematically builds its fury. Disavowing the dreaminess of the album’s opener, “Darkness (I am Here Too)” is all-encompassing yet otherworldly. Sounding as if she is summoning a deviation, Davies cries out, “Don’t gear your eyes / Don’t look away / Face me, come towards.” An added distortion on the lyrics “(I Too Am Here)”. Considering the two track’s together, Esben and the Witch adroitly exhibit the interconnection between light and dark. Rather than repel each other, “A Desire for Light” and “Darkness (I am Here Too)” magnetize. Together, “A Desire for Light” and “Darkness (I am Here Too)” render the album’s unity and balance.
Unequivocally, Nowhere rejects conformity and formula. Whereas “A Desire for Light” forges a dreamy soundscape, the subsequent “Dull Gret” heralds ebullient vitality with its instrumental intensity. The track opens with a crawling bass, only to expedite in pace and urgency reflecting more of a doom-metal sound. The build directly leads into an absolute quietude on “Golden Purifier” only to roar again in “The Unspoiled”. This track takes “A Desire for Light”‘s whimsical qualities and adds Fisher’s punishing guitar riffs and Copeman’s uncompromising drumming.
Esben and the Witch’s lyrics are as dynamic as the instrumentation. “Dull Gret” is inspired by a sixteenth-century oil-on-panel depicting the Flemish folk figure Dull Gret. Artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicted Dull Gret storming hell with an army of women. The art, and Esben and the Witch’s take, is an empowering call to arms declaring “Yes we’re savage and uncouth / We’ve a taste for blood and we will take you tooth by tooth / So run wild, my dears / We’re unleashed and we’re no longer afeared / (One woman can make a din)”. Davies’ vocals and musical presence engender the power “Dull Gret” decrees.
Esben and the Witch’s lyrics also express an idealism cloaked under the darkness. “Seclusion” features an escapist fantasy akin to Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. Much as the author, Esben and the Witch also seek to redress disengagement from dominant society as a means for identity construction. Davies states it is essential “to block out the din and the carnival roars / Achieving a quiet, that he’d yearned for, for years / Find your own peace.” However, peace is only achieved “once you’ve steeled yourself, ready, convalesced, time to move those stones away”. As Krakauer made clear and Esben and the Witch reiterate, self-awareness grows after one rejects the restraints imposed onto their lives.
The moniker, Esben and the Witch, is derived from the Danish fairy tale of the same name. The character’s cunningness and dexterity are his saving grace. Much as their namesake, Esben and the Witch evoke a stunning musical versatility and lyrical fervor. Nowhere is a mesmerizing musical experience enshrining the interplay between the primal and the pristine.