Thursday, March 10, 2011

More from Time Out on 3/15

From Time Out


Esben and the Witch at Empty Bottle; Salem at Empty Bottle | Concert previews

Salem and Esben and the Witch fly on broomsticks into the Empty Bottle this week. But which is truly bewitching?

By Brent DiCrescenzo


One of the more inane microgenres born on blogs, witchhouse is merely a new spin on goth. Chillwave’s evil doppelgänger buries spooky keyboards in shallow-fidelity graves as obscured vocals sing of bones instead of beaches. Honestly, it’s like Bauhaus, had Bauhaus grown up on hip-hop and been given no budget.

Salem has become the most publicized face of the sound, primarily because the Michigan trio serves up great journalist juice. Member John Holland was quoted in BUTT magazine talking about his days as a teen prostitute, and the band has titled an EP Yes, I Smoke Crack, modeled for fashion spreads in The New York Times Magazine and generally bombed hard onstage.

Less discussed was the group’s debut album, 2010’s King Night, a murk of cheap gangsta riddims, menacing keyboards and mumbled threats. Like a wet dream of Larry Clark, Jack Donoghue raps monosyllabic, nihilistic thoughts on “Sick.” But strip away the layers of gimmicks and you’re left with little more than a smoke machine.

To be fair, the far more literate Esben & The Witch merely have the misfortune of putting “witch” in their name during this witchhouse trend. The Brighton, England, threesome goes trad gothic on its recent first record, Violet Cries, something that could have easily fit alongside Dead Can Dance on 4AD circa 1986.

Rachel Davies takes her bittersweet time, chanting low in drawn-out vowels over a fog of delicate feedback and faint tribal drumming. What at first seems like a palette of pure gray reveals surprising detail on closer listens, as when the keyboards tink like dripping icicles in “Hexagons IV.” There’s a seamless mix of digital and organic textures, but more important, some real emotion. Esben can be harrowing, gorgeous or somehow both, but it’s not all shock tactics and makeup.