It’s strange to think that Brighton three-piece Esben and The Witch released their debut EP, 33 not much more than half a decade ago, such has been the extent of the roller coaster ride they’ve been on since. The band were hyped to the extreme after the release of second single ‘Marching Song’,and not without reason, it was an exercise in beautiful simplicity that gave one the impression they could repeat it at will. Such was the steep gradient of their rise, nomination for the BBC Sound of 2011 prize alongside Jessie J, The Vaccines and James Blake and their signing to American super-indie label Matador Records all came prior to the release of their debut album.
Esben, though, were too unique, too inquisitive, too intelligent and too talented to follow the populist streak of their above mentioned contemporaries. First album Violet Cries threw the kitchen sink in a bold, ambitious but ultimately flawed attempt to nail down a complex Portisheadesque sound. Harshly neglected second effort Wash The Sins Not Only The Face was an improved offering, with more direct songwriting and a sound that took the best parts of post-rock and made it their own, but one unfortunately and curiously let down by Matador’s decision to release it in the mid-January wasteland.
With Matador now out of the picture, A New Nature is the first opportunity the band have had since the release of their first EP to write and record with no expectations bar their own. They wisely used the opportunity to make changes. A New Nature is crowd funded, self-released and was recorded during a brief trip to Chicago with legendary Shellac frontman Steve Albini. The other change, displayed in recent live performance, has been the stripping back of the electronics, presenting the band in a traditional guitar/bass/drums/voice format. The evolution suits them, it feels like a long time since a Brighton band released a record this essential.
Second track, ‘Dig Your Fingers In’, is the most obvious single. The opening guitar lick has the foreboding of a Morricone soundtrack and the light percussion adds to that mood. The song primarily acts as a showcase for Rachel Davies’ PJ Harvey meets Nina Simone croon and it seems the most delicate yet immediate thing they’ve done since ‘Marching Song’. Just as you feel it’s the albums restrained moment, the song bursts into life for a last minute explosion that expunges the tension.
Immediately following it is ‘No Dog’, an absolute beast of a song. Drummer Daniel Copeman explodes into life with a ferocious attack on his toms and cymbals, ably backed by Davies’ huge, distorted, Jesus Lizardesque bass. A midsong breather featuring some wonderful soundtrack guitar work dials up the dread before Copeman’s subtly increasing presence becomes a full scale battery. The song ends with a distressed sounding vocal from Davies, half singing half shouting “I AM NO DOG, I AM A WOLF”. It’s genuinely breathtaking, benefiting greatly from Albini’s subtle, less is more, live sounding production.
Bookending the A side are two epics. The exclamation mark of ‘Press Heavenwards!’ gives away a Godspeed influence as evidenced by the opening gorgeous guitar work, the most common feature of the record. Then noisy, fuzzy bass is filling the space alongside Copeman’s urgent, insistent rhythms. Before you know it the song has folded back in on itself, returning to its tranquil opening. ‘The Jungle’ is the centrepiece of the album, its 14 minute runtime is ambitious but not over-egged. A beautiful sense of space underpins the first half with some minimal, atmospheric, guitar work complimenting a foreboding kick drum before a trumpet interlude signals the opportunity for the drums to develop gradually through a series of accomplished time changes, leading to a clever finish that builds and builds without ever quite giving the threatened crescendo.
The second half of the record doesn’t quite live up to the first, but there are still outstanding moments. After a brief restrained vocal ‘Those Dreadful Hammers’ starts like an early Swans noise workout, all slow heavy drums and wailing guitar work. Penultimate track ‘Blood Teachings’ is one of the strongest on the record; Davies’ croon again excelling in a slinky, sexy opening before Copeman’s time changes drive the song to a conclusion featuring Davies’ best banshee impression and the closest Thomas Fisher gets to guitar hero mode on the record.
As an album it works best digested in one sitting, at eight tracks in 55 minutes on paper that might sound like a daunting prospect, but with a work of this quality the time zooms by. Final track ‘Bathed In Light’ is an uncharacteristically gorgeous guitar-led ballad that practically begs you to press play again. You really should.