Esben & the Witch prowl close to the edge of danger, chilling uncertainty on ‘Older Terrors’

Photo by William Vandervoort

Photo by William Vandervoort

I grew up on the edge of the woods. Now, as an adult, I would relish such an existence, especially in the winter time, when picturesque walks would be right outside my doorsteps. But growing up, I constantly was unsettled by what lurked in that thick patch of trees, be that mysterious, horrifying, dangerous, or all those things combined.

There’s something about “Older Terrors,” the amazing new record from Esben and the Witch, that takes me back to the times when I’d gaze out my window at night and wonder what threats were staring back. The four tracks here, all epic length, gnaw at your psyche and make you feel that queasy uncertainty that something within arm’s length has the worst of intentions in mind. Throughout this record, hungry wolves lurk, the fright has a very real face, and almost like the forbidden woods in “The Witch,” the entrance into the unknown carries with it something that could cost you your life, or maybe just your psyche. These songs take their time to develop, as they set the stage, carrying you through the murk and showing you the very basis of fear. This may be supernatural or fantastical in essence, but not in a storybook sense. It makes the flesh crawl in a way that makes you consider the unknown and the fact that what you create in your mind might be real.

esben-and-the-witch-coverEsben and the Witch have had a really interesting journey through their career. They started off with indie tastemaker label Matador (who have taken a ton of my money over the years) for their first two records “Violet Cries” and “Wash the Sins Not Only the Face.” Things got interesting once they left that label and released “A New Nature” in 2014, which they saw them get heavier and darker. The band—vocalist/bassist Rachel Davies, guitarist Thomas Fisher, and drummer Daniel Copeman—flirted with post-metal and other heavier sounds, driving them ever so closely to the perimeter of extreme music but staying a mysterious star in orbit. Now, they’ve joined up with Season of Mist for “Older Terrors,” and their thick, foreboding darkness never has been darker.

“Sylvan” is the stunning 13:09-long opener, settling in with a calculated drum beat, shadowy playing, and singing pushing the plot back and forth down the stream and into the darkened woods. The tempo remains the same for the first three quarters of the song, as the track sucks you in and makes you a part of its atmosphere. Later on, the static starts to spill in, while the song and its elements threaten. Gazey power erupts at around the 9:30 mark, flowing over into chaos, with guitars echoing and haunting, the track driving harder, and Davis luring, “Come with me to the place where the walls are weak.” “Marking the Heart of a Serpent” is the shortest cut at 10:22, and it mixes serenity with outright eeriness. The music plods along, as if through a dense fog, with Davies’ singing hypnotizing, and the track finally hitting full blast. The ambiance goes back and forth from dark to light, with Davies wailing, “I am the magnetizer!” as a noisy stomp crushes the earth, and post-punk guitars sprawl all over. Wordless calling chills the cells, while the tempo builds, loud guitars ramp up the intensity, and the whole thing winds up in oppressive grime.

“The Wolf’s Sun” runs 11:14, pushing you right into abrasion, though also letting a huge gust of air into the space. “Lead me through the dark, you fingers clutching my heart,” Davies calls, elevating the passion and emotion of the situation. Thick bass begins bruising, while steam rises, with Davis declaring, “I am rapture!” The back end smashes away, letting shrapnel fly before it powers out. Closer “The Reverist” runs a healthy 11:24, and it slowly comes to life, with guitars rolling and weeping into the darkness. Singing slips in, flowing gently along with the song and making note of “crumbling towers” and “ships on fire.” The doom curtain then drops, as mournful melodies swell as overwhelm, the guitars charge, and a noise onslaught comes on strong. Davies howls as the music matches her desperation, and as the piece winds down, the music settles into the ground as Davies wonders, “I’ve seen the older terrors, will you come with me?”

Esben and the Witch get darker and more dangerous as they go on, almost like those things at the edge of the woods, looking to draw your fears. “Older Terrors” is another tremendous effort from this trio, and their music is getting scarier and more unsettling. They may have awakened some fear deep within me, but the possibility of facing that is quite welcome.

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