“Everything’s changed and nothing’s changed,” says vocalist Rachel Davies of Hold Sacred, Esben and the Witch’s sixth album. “This kernel is the purest essence of Esben and the Witch since our inception.” It’s a product of the trio’s deeply important, 14-year-spanning friendship. Together, they shut themselves away to plunge into and search for solace in the depths of exhaustion, depression, anxiety, existential fear — and all beginning long before the world shut down and changed irrevocably. The art they were moulding together was their lifeline. It was sacred.
Esben and the Witch — comprising Rachel Davies, Thomas Fisher and Daniel Copeman — began in Brighton in 2008, later decamped to Berlin, and is now split three ways across the UK, Germany and the US. Their winding geographical journey feels representative of their path as a whole. The band have snaked through various scenes and sonic worlds across their 14 years together, while always squirming away from an easy genre classification. Their first two albums, 2011’s Violet Cries and 2013’s Wash the Sins Not Only The Face — both released on Matador Records — offered gothic, electronic-tinged dream pop and post-rock. Beginning with the Steve Albini-produced A New Nature (2014, self-released on their own Nostromo Records), they came to explore heavier post-punk and metal textures, which they intensified through 2016’s Older Terrors and 2018’s Nowhere (both via Marseille-based metal label Season of Mist).
In the summer of 2019, the band retreated to a villa outside of Rome, with no expectations or pressures but simply the intention to enjoy each other’s company and see what musical inspiration may arise from that. This is where the rough sketches of the songs that would form Hold Sacred came to be. “It was a wonderful, restorative retreat,” Davies says. “It felt free again, and a reminder that perhaps there was still a spark left for us to unearth.”
The songs that were emerging were different than any previous. They’re brooding, gentle, almost ambient; there are no live drums, and the instrumentals comprise simple, sparse guitar and keys. “We wanted to create a softer, calmer record; a record we’d listen to when we need soothing, like the ambient records we find comforting and, dare I say, almost spiritual,” says Davies. The band used no outside producers or engineers, keeping the process limited to the three of them from start to finish — harkening back to the spirit of their earliest days when Copeman would record them in his bedroom and bathroom.
The final stop on this rural odyssey was a converted barn in a village near Berlin, where over four days the trio recorded the album, with Copeman in the engineer’s seat for the first time in over a decade. “We wanted the process to be as pain-free as possible. That meant minimal takes, minimal pressure, minimal comping — trying to keep the essence of the song and not pore painstakingly over each minute detail like we have in the past,” says Davies. “We wanted to take what we had learnt from Steve Albini when we recorded ‘A New Nature’, in keeping things relatively raw and pure, but this time incorporating the elements of atmosphere and reverb that we’ve also explored in the past.”
Lyrically, Davies was working from a more personal and vulnerable place than ever before. She let her subconscious lead the way while writing, and it brought to the fore the burnout and mental struggles that were gnawing at her through the process. “Melancholy and a degree of doom and gloom has always been in our music, but I felt a little braver to be more open about that on a personal level with this album, rather than hide behind metaphors and mythology,” she says. “Or rather I couldn’t not.”
Illustrating that, album opener “The Well” is an eerie, echoey meditation on the experience of depression. But though she begins the song in a dark, isolated place, Davies goes on to plot an escape, clinging to glimmers of resolve and hope. “I can climb out if I dig my fingers in,” she vows (a nod to fan favourite track, 2014’s “Dig Your Fingers In”). “It’s a call from a chamber, from within to oneself, to summon the strength to climb out from the darkness when it seems impossible. To call upon things often deemed frightening and change your perception in order to survive,” Davies explains.
The song’s sentiment, of clawing oneself through the darkness in whatever form is possible, is at the core of the entire album. “It touches upon a spiritual strength, an enlightenment of sorts and a will to clamber out of despair and follow the light,” says Davies. “In Ecstasy” employs an entrancing beat, while lyrically Davies grasps at the healing power of brief, blissful moments. Her repeated command at the song’s climax, “Raise your hands,” carries an almost primal power. The gorgeous “A Kaleidoscope” describes a rebirth, finding peace in the beauty of change and growth. Meanwhile, “True Mirror” probes at self-loathing, while seeking transcendent love and acceptance. “When the cracks are in the walls, will you still come home? / When you see what lies beneath, will you still love me?” it asks.
The album’s stripped back sonics are essential to the songs, letting atmosphere linger and steep, and creating space for Davies’ emotive vocals and storytelling. Though a brave departure from the grand, rock-based songwriting they’d steadily built up across prior albums, it offers the same intensity and passion via a different channel; the songs creep in and envelop you quietly but wholly.
“Heathen” is a stunning moment, made all the more so by its simplicity and quiet. It’s written as a call and response — “a conversation with an absent God,” says Davies. “I’m more than a vessel,” she sings. “It’s about finding strength and solace within yourself and the glory of nature and the universe, rather than a fictitious deity that continues to oppress and cause harm,” Davies says. “No gods, no masters.” It offers a deeply meaningful affirmation of what drives us through our darkest moments: “Yes, I am frightened, but I’m also full of love.”
The album’s closer, “Petals of Ash”, expands on that thesis. Davies describes a scene of apocalypse, the earth razed to ashes. The music is driven by a soft, constant pulse and spidery, hypnotic keys. Ultimately, the narrator decides to bathe in the moonlight and take in the view with somebody that they love. “When the end of the world is nigh, love is all that we take with us,” Davies says. “A ballad for end times.”
What the album’s title asks us to hold sacred is all of these little pieces of light, whether they’re found in self-sufficiency, the support of our loved ones, or the spiritual power of the earth. The album’s existence is a tribute to that; in a moment of brokenness, the three human beings of Esben and the Witch held each other up, and helped each other limp through. “I feel proud of us for staying strong as a trio, as a weird little family that has managed to create something out of the darkness that hopefully shimmers, like a crystal in the mud,” says Davies. “I am proud of not giving up, of maintaining our integrity throughout. This is the sound of three people who love and support each other, navigating the ever present figure of the black dog; and if we can provide help or solace for anyone else, also haunted, then that is value enough.” Now, from here, anything could happen. “Perhaps this record will be our last, or perhaps it’s just another beginning.”