The band have chosen to strip back almost all of the drum machines, loops and electronics that have characterised their earlier work and instead recorded live as a three piece around the core instruments of drums, bass and guitar. Having become comfortable as a live band through the past few years of extensive touring they felt confident enough on this album to allow their instruments generous room to breath by allowing their arrangements to become more expansive – peaking with the epic 'Jungle' which clocks in at over fourteen minutes. Albini, who is best known for his work on classic grunge albums like The Pixies 'Surfa Rosa' and Nirvana's final studio album 'In Utero', seems to be the perfect set of hands for what the band set out to do here. He is known for his belief that the recording engineer or producer should allow the band complete control and freedom of expression in the studio and sees his role as making sure that expression is well captured. He's also known for being an analog purist who prefers to multi-track live in the studio, carefully placing an array of microphones to commit whatever happens in the room to tape.
Amongst the highlights we find 'No Dog', which appears to be a different recording from the one which appears on their split LP with regular touring partners Thought Forms which came out earlier this year. The vocals seem closer and less reverberous and the overall sound is warmer but the performances are remarkably close. The aforementioned 'Jungle' begins with some wonderful atmospherics which sound like looped layers of blended guitar noise making bold use of the often unwanted buzzing of machinery to create an intense mood which underpins a slow, purposeful build which finally relents about halfway through the track, giving way to a beautiful searching trumpet-led instrumental before finding it's way into another almost tribal groove full of tension and another wonderfully insistent melody from Davies.
'Those Dreadful Hammers' begins with an a capella vocal so close and unaffected it is almost uncomfortable, with the loud electric air of the studio filling the gaps between phrases, where normally there is only silence. It's the most conventional track in terms of length, but structurally about as far from a pop song as one could hope to get: the vocal only appears on the intro and at the end the track dissolves in a wall of guitar feedback and trumpets. It is followed by 'Blood Teachings', a track the band previewed upon announcing the release date of the album. At this point I start to see where people are coming from with their PJ Harvey comparisons, but it's also undeniably Esben and recites what sounds akin to a mission statement for the album when Davies cries out, "new ground, new stars, new ways of seeking," you feel that same thrill of the chase they are experiencing as they allow the track to run through to its own conclusion, unfettered by convention.
The album winds down with the gently mournful 'Wooden Star' followed by a short, drumless finale 'Bathed in Light' – a beautiful little lullaby darkened by a warm guitar played through a noisy amp and wide, full, resonant bass. It could be a sweet note to end on but there's an ever-present edge to the band, an all-pervading intensity that makes this an album that is certainly not for the feint hearted. It is wilfully anti-commercial, unconventional and full of the noises many try to banish from their recordings but it is also dynamic, restless, atmospheric and emotive. If that sounds like your cup of tea I'd suggest this might be one to buy on proper vinyl to play at full volume through a decent set of speakers – allowing all the dynamics and the richness of sound and texture to fill the space and transport you to the nightmarish fairytale land Esben & The Witch have conjured up.