Esben and the Witch - Wash the Sins Not Only the Face
Second album from the Brighton-based trio arrives with spot-on timing. As the country turns white, Esben and the Witch provide the perfect sub-zero soundtrack. We’ve been here before, of course. Their 2011 debut Violet Cries cast them as arch dabblers in the ethereal and the Gothic, but now they return to sharpen up and flesh out their noir visions. Rest assured, they still concoct their hazy dream pop in the deepest bowels of the chill factory but this second album is a smarter, fuller work. They cracked mood and feel on their first album, confirmed their identity via a predilection for spare, heavy-on-the-chorus guitars and pitched Rachel Davies’s vocals away from the (obvious) centre of their sound. Album number two shifts the emphasis from sound to song.
At times epic, at others intimate and benefitting from a narrowed focus, Wash The Sins Not Only The Face gets its mouthful of a title from an inscription on a holy water font the band found at a church in Constantinople. If you were to smooth the production, de-burr the guitars a little, ‘Shimmering’ is nothing more radical or startling than the most delicate folk pop, its arctic guitars sonic red herrings atop trad songcraft. The album as a whole doesn’t quite grip throughout but it does benefit from the commitment of listening in full. The highlights are ‘Deathwaltz’, where suddenly there’s space for Davies and she’s in close-up, blown about by twisting layers of melody, and the closing ‘Smashed to Pieces in the Still of the Night’. The latter, an eight minute mood board with a devastating white noise crescendo, is a shattering illustration of their loud-quiet aesthetic.
Wash the Sins Not Only the Face is a winning follow-up but it falters, perhaps not unsurprisingly, on the likes of ‘Yellow Wood’ and ‘Putting Down the Prey’, when it returns to the template a little too easily, putting mood before melody. At its best, where Esben and the Witch sell their distinct approach with colour and conviction, it squares up with more than just bravado to both the originals (My Bloody Valentine) and more established re-inventors (School of Seven Bells). Recommended, but wrap up. It's cold out.