Esben And The Witch have been garnering press accolades for a while now, and it has been suggested that the release of Violet Cries, their debut album, could propel the band into the commercial and critical stratosphere. According to this line of thinking, they're The xx fronted by Florence Welch: a talented, forward thinking band who are also engaging enough to sell records. For better or worse, Violet Cries disproves these claims. It's an impressive record, but it's not especially immediate or accessible, and it seems more likely to win them a cult following than a wide audience.
The band's chief strength is their ability to create a dark, erotically charged atmosphere. Their songs are beguiling, reverb-heavy affairs, built on a tension generated by stormy guitars and Rachel Davies' dramatic singing. Davies is certainly a strong vocal presence, and the Florence comparisons are not unjustified, but the band show no interest in writing anything which could be construed as a pop song; even the album's most accessible moments, like the superb, slow-building single 'Marching Song' and the dramatic 'Chorea', are unlikely to crop up too much on your local radio station's playlist. The group have rejected directness in favour of subtlety and casually sacrificed immediacy in order to construct mesmeric, gothic atmospheres. Anybody who spent their youth listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees and the dream-pop bands signed to 4AD, and anybody who wishes they were old enough to have grown up with those bands, will recognise and appreciate their priorities.
Davies' vocal theatrics are enough, at first, to carry the listener through weaker material. Repeated spins suggest, though, that Violet Cries is occasionally an exercise in style over substance. Songs like 'Light Streams' and 'Hexagons IV' serve as an example of what can happen if a band get too interested in guitar tone and maudlin lyrics while forgetting to write songs. They drift and float aimlessly.
Leaving aside its infrequent missteps, Violet Cries is an interesting and distinctive record with much to offer the listener. It's unlikely to reinforce the idea that the band are the new xx, or the new Florence and the Machine, or the new Bat For Lashes, or whoever. But if you approach it expecting deliberately awkward, gothic indie rather than shiny pop hits, you'll come away satisfied.