The gift of music is that it expresses what can’t be verbalized. The gift of poetry is that it elevates words beyond their meaning and turns them into music.
Even though I was born in a land between North and Baltic Sea I’ve never had the best relationship with great bodies of water. You can really sum it up in two basic rules: If I want to buoy up, I go down. If I want to dive down, Neptune instantly ejects me. Back in school, whenever I was forced to swim several laps in the middle of the pool, it never felt like a triumph, like me successfully acquiring a possibly useful skill, but it mainly just happened out of sheer necessity, because drowning and dying right there would have been a really bad look.
I’m only telling you this to establish that I have absolutely no dependable reference for how it must feel to extensively dive through a deep untouched underwater landscape and fully immerse myself in its purity and peacefulness for over forty minutes. And yet specifically this is exactly what I experience when I listen to the new album of Esben And The Witch.
The by far predominant thing you see underwater is - darkness. So the most distinct variations in your environment are actually those you make up in your mind. Are a thousand eerie eyes staring at you from the void? Or is the guiding hand of a friend waiting out there to take you back towards the sunlight? The actual world in sight before you might mostly be calm and steady. Yet the world beyond your view, the realm of possibilities you make up lurking in Schroedinger’s darkness, it equally – if not even more – informs your individual reality.
Hold Sacred is a meditation on ambiguity. Most of its music rather lingers than moves. By cold analytical measures it obviously isn’t the trio’s biggest, most exciting, most varying work. It’s certainly not a showcase of everything Esben And the Witch are capable of. You won’t find any rumbling bass lines, exploding guitars or build-ups to huge cathartic climaxes here. In fact the drummer doesn’t even take place at all, but plays keyboards instead. If there is the occasional rudimentary beat here or there, it has been programmed. Judged purely by its parts Hold Sacred certainly doesn’t innovate the band’s sound as much as you might expect from them switching up their modus operandi. Be it A New Nature, Older Terrors, Nowhere – as far as I am familiar with their discography I feel like every album has had one or two songs which are reprised in the overall atmosphere and style of arrangements here.
What makes the new record thrive despite the seeming lack of novelty are commitment and context. Esben And The Witch know that they narrow themselves down to one aspect of their sound, but they do it nonetheless in service of the greater theme. And they also do it, simply because they feel it. The British trio had long been based in Berlin, but then scattered across the globe to Germany, the UK and the United States. Even without the pandemic rearing its ugly head yet back in 2019, it’s highly relatable that they asked themselves the question whether the band was even maintainable any longer. Hold Sacred is the result of them just spending time together in an Italian summer retreat with the single clear intention of enjoying each other’s company and seeing if and how it would inspire them to open a new chapter of their story. And what came out of it was the wish to create something peaceful, calm and solacing.
Something which feels like hovering over your shadow, like swimming through a hopeful dream.
The instrumentals aren’t meant to work on their own. They are as much vessels of Rachel Davies’ poetry as her warm consoling voice is their natural extension. The lyricism of the bassist and singer has always been a crucial part of the band’s appeal, but here it even steps up in importance, floating in perfect equilibrium with its surroundings. Maybe she doesn’t meditate on the ambiguous, but rather embraces the duality of the human experience. Finding light in the darkness. “When the night falls and my eyes fail, I will build a ladder that’s purely made of light.” Birthing beauty out of destruction. ”We destroy, to escape and crawl out, tentatively. So fleeting, so fragile” She offers to protect us. “When the slope is steep and treacherous and the path well trodden is swept away, keep on, keep going, because I’ll be there.” In return she trusts us to see her “strip away the muscle ‘til I’m just skin and bone.”
The lesson is that no matter how we perceive ourselves, our fears and our insecurities, no matter how harsh and ugly the world around us may seem – we are never alone. “We’ll watch the blue sky turn black, as the stars all crumble around us. So take in the view, take in the view. Take me with you.”
I am there. We all should be.
“All is calm. All is bright.”