Esben and the Witch takes its name from a Danish fairy tale. In the story, Esben is the runt of twelve brothers that set out to seek their fortunes. Though neglected and abused, Esben manages to outsmart a witch and a king, saving his brothers’ lives; he becomes a hero in the process. Like most pre-Disney fairy tales, there is a darkness that taints the seemingly innocent children’s story. In the case of Esben and the Witch, there is enough throat-slitting, child-roasting, and king-hanging to keep kids up at night.
Fittingly, the style of the Brighton three-piece, which draws from post-punk and shoegaze, has been described as “nightmare pop.” Esben and the Witch give a Gothic feel to the nuanced pop stylings of contemporaries The XX; the band’s aesthetic and two-guys-and-a-girl composition will no doubt lead to comparisons, as well. On the strength of their 33 EP and single “Lucia, At The Precipice,” (along with early love from the UK music media) the band landed a deal with indie powerhouse Matador Records.
“Lucia, At The Precipe” is a harbinger of the music on their Matador debut, Violet Cries. Rachel Davies’ breathy vocals are the focal point, as Daniel Copeman and Thomas Fisher build walls of shadows with their creepy instrumentals (Davies also contributes, on bass and percussion).
Many songs on the album follow the same pattern: Davies’ restrained singing over an ethereal soundscape of swirling piano and guitar, before cascading drums crash overhead. Songs like “Swans,” “Marine Fields Glow” and “Eumenides” are more ambient and spaced-out than the electronic-tinged “Hexagon IV,” “Chorea,” and “Warpath.” Standout track “Light Streams” sounds like a lo-fi, down-tempo song by Florence and the Machine. But whether pensive or chaotic, the band nails their sound tighter than a lid on a coffin.
A simple, repetitive drum beat is the engine that drives “Marching Song,” the lead single on Violet Cries. The lyrics are like a Gothic take on the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” and the video capitalizes on the brutal, visceral imagery contained within.
Esben and the Witch, Wise Blood, and Last Tide play DC’s Red Palace next Thursday, March 3.