Release Date: Jan 22, 2013
Record label: Matador
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Esben and the Witch followed up their inclusion on the BBC Sound of 2011 Shortlist (alongside the likes of Jessie J, James Blake and The Vaccines no less) with a debut album which was defiant in its distance from such accessibility. Violet Cries revelled in a dense claustrophobic atmosphere full of trembling build ups and macabre imagery but frustratingly short on cathartic releases. There were still moments of brilliance therein but overall it was a bit of a damp squib from a band who had displayed so much early promise.
On their debut album, Violet Cries, Esben and the Witch excelled at creating a mood that was equally bewitching and ominous. When this mood collided with a memorable melody or hook, it showed just how powerful the band could be; on Wash the Sins Not Only the Face, they deliver on that promise with more nuance and more confidence. The trio hasn't changed any one thing; instead, they've made everything better, bringing a precision to their music that hones its icy mystery and delivering more structured songs that paradoxically let Esben and the Witch soar even higher than before on "When That Head Splits.
Esben and the Witch's goth rock billing seemed a bit ill-fitting; their debut had the gloomy atmosphere down pat, but it lacked the pomp and theatricality inherent in so much of the genre's best. Its songs meandered on for too long; elements that should have conveyed suffering only came off as sulking. There was a sense that the band knew what it wanted, but wasn't exactly sure how to achieve it.
Dark folk trio Esben and the Witch are distractingly beautiful in the video for “Deathwaltz,” a single from their sophomore release. It’s just a bummer all the allure goes wasted on Wash The Sins Not Only The Face’s most trying cut. The rabid guitar and Rachael Davies’ rushed, moody vocals tempt a listener’s frantic switch to flip. While listening to Wash for review, my roommate aloud wondered, “Dragon-slaying music?” She had a point.
Even the most depraved souls fantasise about wiping away transgressions with holy water, but some blemishes can’t be removed with a brush and soap. And as far as some thick-skulled zealots are concerned, Brighton trio Esben And The Witch come branded with a ‘WARNING – BRAINY BUNCH’ tattoo. They’re guilty of being a bit too clever-clever, and raising hackles among those who see cerebral cock-waggling as something to ward off with crucifixes and garlic.All of which, of course, is utter rot.
Esben and the WitchWash The Sins Not Only The Face[Matador; 2013]By Rob Hakimian; January 25, 2013Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGViolet Cries, the title of Esben and the Witch’s debut album, is a nice summation of the sound the band unrelentingly employs throughout their music. They use a sound palette of dark and purply, nocturnal and gloomy sounding guitars, interwoven with driving drums and iced with singer Rachel Davies’ melodramatic vocals. Their follow up, Wash The Sins Not Only The Face, doesn’t really broaden this palette so much as try to use it in more expansive ways, something with which they have intermittent success.
The concept of “the difficult second album” is one of the key components of the music critic’s toolbox, but what of its close relation “the second album that’s a massive step-up from a disappointing debut”? (Presumably it’s never really caught on as the name’s not so catchy). While, thanks to a press and industry that are overly keen to buzz any potential ‘next big thing’, the recent history of UK guitar music has been littered with plenty of the former, there have been more than a few high profile exceptions who fall into the second category, and to that group we can now arguably add Esben and the Witch. Where their debut saw the Brighton three piece in the possession of a considerable amount of ability, a fair amount of hype and an endearingly silly name but not much an idea of what to do with it all, the burst of My Bloody Valentine-alike noise that opens Wash the Sins Not Only the Face suggests that the 2013 model of Esben and the Witch is a far more driven, enticing prospect.
With the customary once a winter cold snap hitting the UK over the past few days, it’s a rather appropriate time for Brighton’s Esben And The Witch to release their new album. Not only do they possess a name that conjures up images of a quirky, slightly sinister Scandinavian children’s TV animation, where trolls and goblins frolic across perpetually dark, snow-clad landscapes (indeed, the origin is apparently a Danish fairytale), but their music is also correspondingly icy in tone. Founded in 2008, the trio’s strident debut album Violet Cries, released in 2011, saw them quickly pigeonholed as the new standard bearers of gothic rock, a genre deeply unfashionable since the late 1980s, when bands like The Sisters Of Mercy, Fields Of The Nephilim and The Mission were constructing the kind of hulking sonic edifices that were, depending on your point of view, either dramatically powerful or faintly preposterous.
As Crowley cursin’ crypt kickers go, Brit trio Esben & The Witch’s spooksome début Violet Cries was a minor monster mash even if it failed to unleash a full-on tsunami of soiled pants n’ sleepless nights. It may’ve been more your respectable, book-wormish, lucky charm-wearing white wiccan rather than your living-in-a-cave, eating beating hearts n’ boiling skulls, thousand year-old warty hag but it was a fun-sized thriller all the same. Shiver y’all though as the howlin’ bell rings again.
As weekend eccentrics and half-hearted quirks clog up the alt-mainstream's weirdo quotient, it's increasingly tough to separate the Woolf-reading wheat from the Twilight-watching chaff. In this respect, a band like Esben and the Witch, all shrouds and wails, are a breath of fresh air. That said, the air the shadow-dwelling Brits inhale might be better characterized by its dankness, Wash the Sins Not Only the Face being a boggle-eyed, phosphorescent creature of the sort usually found hanging from the walls of sea caves.
If you're finding the wait for a second Warpaint album slow going, you could do far worse than look to Brighton's Esben & the Witch, who are ploughing a similar furrow of intricate, swirly dream-rock, though at a steadier pace. There's much to admire in their follow-up to 2011's debut, Violet Cries, not least the icy elegance of Rachel Davies's Cocteau Twins vocal tone, at its finest in the insistent Slow Wave, which loops around with an increasingly steely grip. Though its titles – Deathwaltz, Putting Down the Prey – suggest an abundance of black-clad art student pretensions, there's a lot more to it than that.
When Esben and the Witch released their 2011 debut, Violet Cries, it aligned them with then-current goth pop (Zola Jesus, Austra, Chelsea Wolfe), and, as Jayson Greene concluded in his review of the album, "the cumulative impact [was] more tepid than bone-chilling." The Hexagons EP released later that year diluted the debut's hints of darkness even further. But the band's new album, Wash the Sins Not Only the Face, manages to transcend the band's cobwebby connotations. Here Esben and the Witch lean towards post-rock, which edges them in the direction of bands that are haunting without being specifically gothic, like Warpaint or Wild Beasts.
Wash the Sins Not Only the Face could easily be 47 minutes of doom and gloom, considering its gothic roots, but the journey crafted by Esben and the Witch is an illuminated one. Naturally, the flashes of brightness are a deception, leading the listener down an even darker path. On “Deathwaltz”, for example, an air of mystery surrounds Rachel Davies’ radiant delivery, as foreboding guitar lines crescendo towards an unnerving fadeout.
Originally touted in 2011 as the harbingers of a gothic revival with a BBC Sound Of nomination to their fairytale-inspired name, Esben and the Witch are back and this time... they’re still really serious. Listeners can easily discern this from Wash the Sins Not Only the Face because it’s cloaked in a dark shroud of naval-gazing echo pedal, lead singer Rachel Davies appears to be warbling straight from the bowels of Hades and the fact the album is called Wash the Sins Not Only the Face.
Brighton band eschews cliché, sounding sleek, fluid and effortlessly modern on album two. Martin Aston 2013 What used to be labelled goth back in the dark ages of post-punk, and is now called darkwave, has never been the most credible of musical genres. The media has generally sneered at those who’d rather solve their problems by turning the lock on their bedroom door for eight hours than take to the streets in protest.
Quietly working away at a curious intersection somewhere between industrial shoegaze and techno pop, Esben & The Witch found themselves, in the space of a few short months at the tail end of 2010, signed by Matador Records and named on the BBC Sound of 2011 long list (their name incongruous alongside the likes of Jessie J and The Vaccines). Looking back, it's easy to couple the rush and excitement of that period for the band with the criss-cross of directions, multiple flows of coded messages and emotive pivots that raged through debut album Violet Cries. Not so much the cliché 'you've your whole life to write your first album,' Esben And The Witch's first outing sounded as though it had burst from them, the uncontainable energy of a pyroclastic flow.
‘Esben And The Witch’ is a Danish fairy tale about a young boy who uses stealth and cunning to out-smart an evil old crone. As with all Scandinavian kids’ stories it’s dark, violent, and totally unsuitable for its target audience. Esben And The Witch, the band that take their name from that story, “think a lot of people think that [they] are better educated about fairytales and more enamoured than [they] actually are.”So why mention it? Because old folk tales are proper weird.