esben-and-the-witch_older-terrorsI’m not alone among the AMG staff in having fallen hard for The Gathering‘s career defining Mandylion release back in 95. That platter combined elements of doom and goth rock in a way that had never been done before and created something haunting, sad and achingly beautiful. The band quickly drifted toward more commercial waters, and many (myself included) were left hungering for more of what Mandylion delivered. Perhaps that’s why my ears pricked up when I heard a snippet of the Older Terrors promo from hitherto unknown by me English three-piece, Esben and the Witch. Yet, this is so very far from a mere clone of The Gathering and in fact, has little in common with them beyond a similarly haunted ennui. The band describes their style as “nightmare pop,” but it’s more properly characterized as darkwave, atmospheric rock with post-metal and blackened overtones. As this strange machine grinds along you’ll hear influences ranging from The Cure, Nebelung, Myrkur and even P.J. Harvey. How’s that for provocative name dropping?

With 4 songs spread over 46 minutes neither Esben nor the titular Witch are big on editing or hurried song builds. Every track runs in excess of 10-minutes and takes its sweet time getting where its going, but for the most part the band makes this work in their favor. Opener “Sylvan” is a slow motion atmosphere-fest with soft, sparse instrumentation coated in the rich, hypnotic vocals of Rachel Davies, and her beautiful, dream-like delivery pretty much ensures you’ll stick around no matter the length. What makes this so impressive is how attentively it makes me focus on the music despite the fact there’s very little going on beyond Davies’ siren calls. When I say the music is sparse, I’m being generous. There are long sections with almost nothing but her voice to lead you, and it still works. It isn’t until the 9:30 mark that “Sylvan” kicks into a more active phase and it’s here where The Gathering influences are the clearest and the band hits peak stride.

The other songs are variations on the same core theme – long, drawn-out compositions with Davies singing beautifully over stripped down, occasionally discordant, jangly post-rock riffs. “Marking the Heart of the Serpent” offers a slightly jazzy, tripped-out style with a bit more going on musically, and “The Wolf’s Sun” introduces a muted rock n’ roll approach where Davies croons over upbeat bass grooves to great effect. “The Reverist” slowly became my favorite due to its eerie, sullen mood and Davies’ haunting, ethereal laments of “ships on fire.” This is like the distant kin to Bathory‘s “Shores in Flames” if done by the singer from Myrkur with backing by A Swarm of the Sun. Hard to describe, but easy to love.

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That the band is able to make their minimalist formula work so well is rather surprising. At first I was thinking this was little more than background music, but it’s much more than that. Each song draws you in and almost forces you to pay attention despite the languid pacing and excessive length. 95% of this is because of Rachel Davies. Her voice is enchanting in the same way as Anneke van Giersbergen’s was on those early The Gathering albums and she has a huge presence that comes through the speakers at you. She isn’t asked to do a lot of different things vocally, mostly remaining in a mid-range croon, but damn if she doesn’t hook the ear. Thomas Fisher (no, not that one) is the model of an understated guitar player, mostly existing in the background, only taking a prominent role in the few brief flare ups of “metal.” He is quite adept however at setting a melancholy mood with minimal riffing and plucking, especially on “The Reverist.”

For all the success the band has across Older Terrors, there are some issues that may lessen the enjoyment for some. The biggest is the lack of variety in tempo and song structure. They spend the majority of the time in a slow, moody limbo and depend on Davies to carry them through to the next sonic insurgence. When these arrive they’re well executed, but more variations in tempo would definitely help. Another minor quibble is the muffled drum sound. It’s obvious why Davies is way up front, but less clear why the drums are drowned out by the guitars as they sometimes are when things get lively.

Esben and the Witch are one of those unexpected delights we music lovers live for. They aren’t the most metal of bands, but they’ll definitely appeal to fans of acts like Messa, Castle, or anyone who loves moody, emotional music generally. Hunt this one down and you’ll be captured by the grace of the Witch.


Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Seasons of Mist
Websites: esbenandthewitch.co.ukfacebook.com/esbenandthewitch
Releases Worldwide: November 4th, 2016

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  • AngryMetalBird

    1255…. also great review as usual!

    • 1255? I’m not good at maths.

      • AngryMetalBird

        Just counting….

    • Ha! Nice :)

  • Juan Manuel Pinto Guerra

    That by-line really made laugh!

  • Juan Manuel Pinto Guerra

    I have never liked Nirvana, but for some reason the main vocal melodies reminded me of a slowed-down, cleaned up, gender changed “Polly”.

  • Reese Burns

    If that cover didn’t have the black borders, it’d be something to behold!

    • For some reason it makes me think of While Heaven Wept.

      • Reese Burns

        I get a Blair Witch feel from it, the way the cover is designed so your eyes follow the path as it gets darker. It has a sort of mysterious menace to it.

  • Antorus

    Ok wtf I came all like MEH THE NAME IS INTERESTING AND THE COVER ART IS COOL BUT I AM GONNA BE ALL MEH ABOUT IT

    then the feels came. This is really good. Not sure why it speaks to me but I am gonna give this a lot of spins.

  • madhare

    Nice find! Bought the album on Bandcamp half-way through the embedded track. :D I’ve been wondering what to put in the playlist after Messa. Not lot of things seems to fit. But this sounds perfect. So thank you once again!

  • Oscar Albretsen

    They accidentally took out the “L” at the beginning of their name.

  • Wilhelm

    I feel the composition is drawn out too much with the repetition not hitting me very hard; she has an extremely beautiful voice and her vocal stylings are wonderful but the composition feels kind of flat.

  • 1 Screaming Dizbuster

    I stumbled across this band a few years ago with their album “Wash the Sins Not Only the Face”, really suprised to see a review of them on this site. I’d say they have much more of a Portishead vibe than the Gathering, but good stuff just the same.

  • MelbCro

    Just because the Gathering moved away from metal, doesn’t mean they went more commercial. Mandylion is a way more accessible record than albums like How to measure a Planet and Souvenirs.

  • jetblindracos

    Somehow the first minute reminded me of a Manowar song,stayed for the rest to see whats what and forgot myself for a time looking at nothing.Wow, beautiful.

  • sir_c

    I think her vocals would also fit in some song by Delerium. But that ain’t metal :-)

  • André Snyde Lopes

    My goodness, this takes forever to get going. Comparing this to the expediency of Nebelung’s passages is almost criminal.

    I guess it’s fine after 9 minutes of the same repeating vocal line and chords. But by then I’ve already fallen asleep.

    • Gaëtan Baratin

      At the end of the first track, I kept waiting for a final, soaring octave note from the singer, which never came. It was deliciously frustrating.
      To me this sensation when a piece of music makes you wait, wait and wait almost to the point exasperation is a way of “getting going”
      But if you get just bored and not frustrated, this no longer works. It’s a thin line…

  • Wadsworth Van Hagar

    Thanks for reviewing stuff like this. You guys make me order too many CDs

  • Hulksteraus

    Way to get my attention Steely D!

  • LongDeadGod

    I do enjoy the vocals, but just going off the embed this girl is no where near anneke. Will be tracking this down though, great overall vibe, along with getting reminded about madder mortem this is a good week for female fronted stuff.

    • I didn’t say she was as good as Anneke, just that she reminds me of her.

  • De2013

    “but they’ll definitely appeal to fans of acts like Messa, Castle”

    Sold!

  • Bart the Repairman

    LERA LYNN?!
    Jesus, their voices and phrasing are completely, totally indistinguishable. It’s uncanny. Check out Lynn’s songs from True Detective soundtrack (2nd season) for comparison.

  • Solaire

    Been a fan of these guys for a while, so looking forward to hearing this.

  • Roquentin

    Great, great record. It provides that sort of dryadic mysticism that Hexvessel were so good at, but forgot to visit on their latest release.

  • Lucas Lex DeJong

    God damn. I was trying to get pumped for the gym, letting the coffee kick in and browsing new metal.

    Then this. And now I’m just staring out the window at the rain.

  • RyanM1985

    Stunning album. Just listen to it in the dark and chill. Perfect.