Esben and the Witch - Split LP

8/10

Both Wiltshire’s Thought Forms and Brighton’s Esben and the Witch hit career highs just last year with the woozy, micro-sleep twitchy Ghost Mountain and the bruise-black and blue Wash the Sins Not Only the Face respectively. That both bands live, musically at least, more in the 90s than in whatever this decade would be termed (“the teenies” be fucked) seems to hinder neither to any great extent, both sounding like revisions of past heroes, margins of the original texts filled with interesting echoes and additional reflection rather than the straight facsimile of the same peacocked by the aptly monikered Yuck.

Quick as you like comes this brief split 6-tracker (four for Deej Dhariwal’s crew, two more expansive cuts from Rachel Davies’) we get an snapshot insight into how each band works, a microcosm of the very different universes they attempt to create and inhabit, a sojourn into two sister worlds that share as many similarities as disparities.

Thought Forms lead from the front with the Mono-like slow-rise buzz of “Your Bones”, all descending arpeggio and background feedback shimmer. As Charlie Romijns plaintive, drowning vocals lead us through the wash of fuzz the great Drop Nineteens spring to mind – there’s a droop-lid coolness here that everyone wants taking up a little corner of their record collection. A soaring ‘gaze riff locks in with Guy Metcalfe’s rumbling drums there are flashes of the fondly remembered (at least ’round ‘ere) Cranes dreamy breeze of sound, climbing, reaching and satisfying in a nearly elemental fashion.

The trick here is that while they do indeed sound like a bunch of ever-so-good bands they avoid pastiche or, worse, mewling imitation, by snappily recapturing feeling and atmosphere rather than copping chord sequences and riffs like a drunk kid in a Nirvana t-shirt at the counter of the alt-rock pick n’ mix. “I am your bones/As the music plays on and on” Romijns may or may not intone here (hard to tell so buried in the mix is the vocal – obviously) and it’s hard to question the band’s legitimate weirdness.

“Sound of Violence” lunges into minor chord friction and twinned harmonies from Dhariwal and Romijns that help it leap up, dirty and punch-drunk through its’ predictable, yes, but also damn pleasing peaks and troughs. It’s lolly-crunching, fist-clenching stuff.

“For the Moving Stars” pulls us through a Sloan-like high ringin’ bass, slicing guitar and those ever-attractive hazy, slack-jawed vocals. It’s mighty tuneful, as is their final contribution here, a track that could have easily slipped onto Hole’s underrated ‘Pretty On The Inside’, the big, bold, yes, GRUNGE tune ‘Silver Kiss’.

Where the ‘Forms, as nobody has ever referred to them, are indebted to a few closely related styles; their satellite sounds, sweetness and, key to any ‘gaze band, sense of yearning, press pleasure centre sensors deftly and with style, Esben and the Witch are a far more intense, stare-eyed and, indeed, contrived proposition.

Rachel Davies’ voice on “No Dog” sets off some misleading alarm bells. “Baring teeth/They’re starting to drip” she croaks, all cracked gothisms and affectation before miraculous drummer Daniel Copeman makes the save with his punishing martial beats. Soon we’re swirling off high into the ether, hypnotized but somehow still fucking angry “I am alive/And I am no dog” she roars, heart found, then like Dry era Polly Harvey fronting a hate-fuelled prog band we get the gang chant “I AM NO DOG” and the war is won. It’s magnificent. Even though there is a very purposeful attempt to be seen as serious, dark and mysterious in the make-up of the band, an undercurrent manifesto one would not usually trust, the fact that they are all three forgives them such sins.

Esben get to crown the album with its lengthy closer “Butoh”. It’s pure sex and death stuff, Davies’ vocals impenetrable beasts here, crouching, shrinking and lounging over rabid, ragged rock (“…a hidden place where water flows” indeed). This is cloud-bursting stuff, among the best songs they’ve written, with whipsmart but obtuse lines like “Repeat, repeat, refrain, release”. It’s a veritable tornado of sound, doused in cliff-leaping rolls of racket that prove irresistible.

While Esben may be the more established of the two bands here, the more critically massaged and beard-strokingly analysed, it’s Thought Forms that provide a sense of gameness, of openness and of actual fun that offers a welcome balance to Esben’s pummeling, near-savage emotional and musical beatings. Both come off well here, their styles far enough apart to spark curiosity, close enough together to make sense. Admittedly the LP’s brevity doesn’t give either band much chance to put a foot wrong – but if you, like so many of us, are still living in the ‘90s I recommend nipping down Woolies to get this on tape immediately.