As one of the UK’s most consistent, uncompromising rock groups, whose work has always essentially operated in distinct separation to the indie trends with whom they have occasionally threatened to superficially intersect, Esben and the Witch seem to become more compelling with each passing year.
Gratuitous users of the immense, monolithic sonic power of which they seem so effortlessly capable, perhaps the most amazing thing about EATW is their ability to exercise that power in subtly different, progressively more incisive ways on each release. Since announcing themselves with the elliptical goth of their debut LP, Violet Cries, the Brighton trio have grown ever more muscular, intense and purposeful, yet this development has not been achieved by simply becoming louder, heavier or more technically complex. The trajectory of their progression has seen them embrace elements of eerie, esoteric folk (on the Hexagons EP), bruising industrial grunt (showcased at several points on 2014’s A New Nature), and even relatively serene, accessible pop, albeit constantly shadowed with a persistent morbidity (see tracks like “Deathwaltz” and “Yellow Wood”). True to form, on Older Terrors, Esben and the Witch make a characteristically bold aesthetic leap.
Throughout their career thus far, EATW have demonstrated an admirable ability to contain and contextualise their considerable artistic ambitions within concise yet inventive structures, sharpening the focus of their ideas without stifling them with rigid predictability. On Older Terrors, the group have deliberately allowed themselves to follow their ideas through, pursuing their developments over tracks that are never less than ten minutes in duration. This carries a risk: as cathartic and engaging their music has always been, one could be forgiven for occasionally finding Esben and the Witch’s consistent darkness and murk a little oppressive. On their previous releases, their more modest song lengths and the more frequent changes of tone that these necessitated will have appeased the more restless elements of some listeners, and by allowing themselves to spread out over such mammoth durations, EATW present themselves with a formidable challenge of self-editing and self-restraint. Though never a group to bend to the will of the mainstream, I was a little concerned upon my first approach of this album that the band could risk alienating some of their less dedicated supporters by denying them the brief periods of respite to which they had perhaps become accustomed.
My concerns were gravely misplaced – in fact, they are directly, oppositionally wrong. Far from representing the moment at which EATW’s proggy, longform ambitions might have started to get the better of them, Older Terrors is an album that sees the group refine their approach to its purest form yet. These songs – “all” four of them - are not bloated or overstretched; they are lean, dynamic works, whose welcome is never outstayed. All of the EATW’s defining characteristics are present and correct – Daniel Copeman’s tentacular drumming, Thomas Fisher’s vast, shaded swathes of guitar and, perhaps most affectingly, Rachel Davies’ astonishing vocal performances – yet they’re given more room to breathe, more time to avail themselves of any constraints than ever before, and thus the bleak beauty that has always lain at the heart of the group’s appeal is exposed with a brilliant, pristine clarity.
Perhaps this is a rather obvious comparison, but the more I listen to Older Terrors, the more profoundly I am reminded of Swans - specifically the Swans of The Seer and To Be Kind. As has been remarked about that group on multiple occasions (indeed, more than once by Michael Gira himself), their defining quality and the key to their enduring power is their ability to achieve absolute euphoria through the abjection, severity and utter lack of compromise around which their music is wound. Increasingly, Esben and the Witch are coming to represent an intriguing equivalent to Gira and his revolving cast of bandmates. They are less numerous in personnel, and possess less resources for the creation of the sonic enormity of a group like Swans, but it is their economy and deft command of their abilities that allow them to, like Swans, impress upon the listener that we are witnessing the flowering of a group of genuine import and purpose. Their progression has never been less than thrilling to watch, and – this is a compliment – Older Terrors feel like another step, not a destination. We have much to expect from this group yet.