I’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.
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.