Season of Mist – 4th November 2016
The music industry may have changed dramatically since the advent of the Internet – a shift which became perhaps more noticeable marked around the turn of the millennium and has become exponential, transforming the way the whole system operates beyond all recognition in the last decade or thereabouts – but one thing remain largely unchanged, and that’s the way promotion works. I’m not referring to thy myriad alternative channels available through new media, ranging from the viral video to the release slipped out with no promo whereby word of (virtual) mouth alone can catapult a release into the stratosphere. I’m not talking about live streams or download-only bonus packages, either. I am, of course, perhaps predictable, talking about reviews. While some bands dismiss this aspect of promotion and sneer at critics, reviews can – and do – give exposure to acts who likely wouldn’t have otherwise been brought to the public’s attention, or as widely. But the focus is on the buzz around the release. There’s often a clamour to be the first to review a forthcoming release, and in the weeks either side of a release, it’s all about getting the reviews in.
But sometimes, this can backfire. Some albums really do take a fair while to bed in. they require – and deserve – time to be digested, for quality cogitation before finally imparting a balanced critical assessment. What do you want, a knee-jerk snapshot summary, or a more considered appraisal? I know what I want as a music fan. As such, I make no apology for the fact I’ve been slow with this. Having been particularly impressed by A New Nature, it was clear that Older Terrors would not be an immediate album, and with just four tracks filling its half-hour run-time, it’s not a collection of instant-gratification radio-friendly pop tunes that’s on offer.
This album landed with me around the same time as Neurosis’ Fires Within Fires. The Neurosis album failed to move me and proved, ultimately to be an immense disappointment, while Older Terrors struck me as utterly gripping. How could to albums which, in the face of things, share so much common ground and effectively be born from a very similar template, elicit such diametrically different reactions? I’ve spent a long time wrestling with this question, and will return to it shortly.
It perhaps goes without saying that this is epic. It’s an Esben and the Witch album, after all. But there’s something about the four tracks which comprise Older Terrors which really do redefine the band’s direction, and expands upon the long-form approach hinted at on their 2014 split release with Thought Forms.
‘Sylvan’ starts with a delicately picked guitar and backed-off drum, which flutters in the mist of the ancient forest. There’s no denying the captivating, mesmeric power of Rachel Davies’ voice. She conjures truly beautiful notes, but at the same time, there’s a weight, a deep-seated sense of longing, mourning, an ache which resonates with every breath. Hers is not a rock or metal voice, but a folk voice, which coveys far more than the words themselves – although the lyrics, too evoke deep, dark, medieval woodlands and mystical wildernesses. For the most part, the song shows great restraint, holding back the tidal wave of noise in favour of forging atmosphere and majestic sonic vistas. But when the levee breaks, it’s a magnificent burst of shoegaze /post-rock / metal which stands shoulder to shoulder with Jesu at their best. ‘Come with me… to the place where the wolves are weak,’ Davies implores. Something in the way she sings it makes you want to go with her.
It’s not about the difference between Rachel Davies’ vocal delivery and that of Scott Kelly which places so much distance between Esben and the Witch and Neurosis, though, although the depth of emotion conveyed is certainly a factor. The other key elements are the song structures and the fundamental nature of how the songs are played. The song structures on Older Terrors is unpredictable, in contrast to the formulaic approach which defines Fires Within Fires. Esben and the Witch hold back those raging guitar tempests; there are feints, sleights and even outright denials, which make the thunderous crescendos even more gratifying.
‘Marking the Heart of a Serpent’ explodes into raging blasts of noise, in between enticing, alluring verses, and culminates in a truly immense crescendo which transcends the earthly mores of rock music. ‘The Wolf’s Sun’ lumbers through Arthurian woodlands, with ruptures of fire and brimstone conjuring scenes of bruised fearfulness. Closer ‘The Reverist’ is hushed, thoughtful, ponderous and haunting, but still yields a climax of crushing weight. I truth, that’s a vast understatement. I mean, it’s beyond immense.
There’s something ultimately natural about Older Terrors too. While the grainy timbres of the guitars are a key element to the sound, the ragged edges which show in the raw, powerhouse drumming and mammoth riffs when they eventually tear through feel like they’re necessary rather than strategic, as if they can hold back no more and simply have to break out. And when they do break out, the mammoth guitar and thunderous drums are counterbalanced by truly beautiful vocals.
So while the dynamic focus calls to mind Neurosis, the deep, dark, mystical folk leanings of Older Terrors shares more with latter-day Earth and the hypnotic currents of Pain Teens at their most spaced out.
Older Terrors is a remarkable and extremely powerful album, which operates on a subconscious, spiritual level, rather than an explicitly musical, immediate level. It’s anything but immediate, and in truth, it’s an album which requires a lot of patience. But it’s immensely rewarding, and resonates on levels far beyond words.