Esben And The Witch are a Brighton based trio that are often categorised under the heading 'gothic rock'. I'm not going out of my way to argue against the critics and fans because quite frankly I couldn’t give a rats ass what genre or social norm you want to label Esben And The Witch, I only care about the music. After releasing their debut album Violet Cries in January 2011, Esben And The Witch have an EP titled Hexagons and toured extensively. It's been two years since that debut album, and now we have the lucrative sophomore album in our hands. Before giving this record a spin, you notice the artistic album cover which has to already be up there for best album cover of the year. The contrasting colours and trio of faces combine to reveal the albums deeply surreal meaning.
Opening track "Iceland Spar" brings shoegaze and the eccentricity of Slowdive in their Just A Day period. The guitars are loud and exotic with distortion matching reverberation and lead vocalist Rachel Davies Beach House-esque vocal. At only two and a half minutes, "Iceland Spar" acts as the shortest track on the album. The deafening guitars and quiet / loud / quiet structure works even in such a small timeframe. Following "Iceland Spar" is the Braids-like "Slow Wave". The electric guitar uses the delay pedal perfectly, adding depth and character to the track's already hazy atmosphere. Davies utilises her voice and slows down the tempo in her singing. You can hear splashes of piano and poetic vocal layers towards the end of the track, which is one huge dream pop ending.
Confession time: When I went to last year’s Tramlines festival in Sheffield (which is free), I stayed to see Novella, Fear of Men, Mazes and Frankie Rose. Four brilliant artists, however after driving for hours around England over the weekend, my girlfriend and I made a joint decision and left after Frankie Rose, which meant we missed Esben And The Witch perform live. On top of this, it meant we missed Future of The Left as well. Even so, that's six extremely good artists on the same stage at a free festival in Sheffield.
"When That Head Splits" is such a brilliant title for a track. Thankfully the music is just as good as the title. The listener is exposed to dark ambience in the form of an electric guitar. There's a brilliant bass pattern, then the vocals and percussion kick in. it's a well-rounded track, but not musically as strong as the previous two, or the following two tracks. Both "Shimmering" and "Deathwaltz" are loud standout tracks, "Shimmering" for its synthetic sound and vocal progressions which brings to light the talented vocal of Davies. "Deathwaltz" for its magnificent guitar work and left sided guitar which brings to mind post-punk. And with half of the album gone, it seems as if Wash The Sins Not Only The Face is almost flawless. The production carried out by Thomas Morris is far greater than many productions on typical dream pop and post-punk like releases. His sound can be heard on the latest The Big Pink album Future This as part producer and part drummer. Esben and The Witch utilised Thomas' presence by accepting his input as producer musically, using the famed 4AD studios to create this sound.
Pre-release single "Despair" sounds like a no wave band a la Suicide, and an orchestra of guitars and strings conducted by Robin Guthrie. The track instantly picks up after the first 15 seconds of minimalistic drone guitar. There's a stark electronic drum pattern (That's the no wave part) and a polished string section. Davies sings with power and ease, softly sitting above the secondary screech like noise guitar. It's a short track, but like the opening track "Iceland Spar", this fast paced guitar driven rock music should indefinitely be shorter than the slower melodic tracks such as the predecessor to "Despair" which is called "Yellow Wood". This track has all the character and ambient sounds as a Brian Eno recording. Esben and The Witch have really pulled the sound out of the bag on this record. "Yellow Mood" in particular has dazzling production, with Davies delivering her poetic lyrics in her double voice / layered vocal fashion.
"The Fall of Glorieta Mountain" sounds like Warpaint with PJ Harvey vocals. Esben And The Witch actually toured with Warpaint and the similarities aren’t a stretch. Both Esben And The Witch guitarists Daniel Copeman and Thomas Fisher have the technical ability like the two guitarists of Warpaint, Theresa Wayman and Emily Kokal. Likewise on the previous track "Putting Down The Prey", another great title. Although these tracks are slower and lighter, they're still above average and interesting. If it wasn't for the effects this band would pretty much fall through the cracks, so let's be glad Esben And The With are in the correct genre.
Wash The Sins Not Only The Face ends on a high with "Smashed To Pieces In The Still of The Night". This almost sounds like an unfinished title; it's yet another track title worth mentioning. Davies' percussion is drenched in reverberation, same with the guitar. Her vocal enters, soothing the listener before the storm that we all know is about to occur. After beautiful guitar work and further ambience, the electronics enter and the guitars pick up the pace. Davies starts hammering down on the bass drum. The guitar then strikes, sounding like Mogwai on acid. What appears to sound like screams commences the final 20 seconds of Wash The Sins Not Only The Face, leaving just enough time for some guitar feedback at the death.
Esben and The Witch certainly have an ethereal sound. They have the guitar work of every 90s artist associated with the British shoegaze scene, with the dark atmosphere of Joy Division meets The Cure - two bands often labelled as gothic rock. Though Esben And The Witch don't associate themselves with the genre, they most certainly sound as if they've been influenced by the genre. There's no denying that Wash The Sins Not Only The Face is stronger musically than their debut Violet Cries. This album does have a tendency to sway away from reality at times. By that I mean the hazy and sometimes dreary music goes beyond album form and into a sort of make-belief universe that's inhabited by ambient soundscapes and noise. The album has an admirable combination of tracks and sounds. A distortion driven track such as "Iceland Spar" meets the delay / dream pop driven "Slow Wave". These first two tracks sum up the album perfectly. Sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, but always true to their name, style and art.