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Esben & The Witch
Wash The Sins Not Only The Face Simon Jay Catling , January 25th, 2013 05:52

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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. Even though notable steps forward have been made on Wash The Sins Not Only The Face, the shapes and configurations left by the ash of that blast still remain.

The most obvious progression is in the band's move to cleanse their palette of some of the sonic impurities that made the textures of their debut so dense. Only on 'Despair' do they reach those previous levels of claustrophobic, elements-muscling-against-each-other chaos. Instead, tracks like 'Slow Wave' and 'Shimmer' are more considered and tactile. It was a direction that, really, they had to take: they couldn't have gone much bigger than before without becoming overbearing; and by taking a step back they've still retained this tense, turbulent environment.

Notable, too, is how a few of these songs contain something of a more orthodox structure, with sections approaching choruses appearing on the likes of pre-release track 'Deathwaltz' and the dead-of-night timbral march of 'When That Head Splits'. One criticism to be made of their last record was the relative disjointedness of it, even within its all-encompassing sound. Greater focus has been placed on structure this time round, though it's not always immediate. The brooding run of 'Slow Wave', 'When That Head Splits' and 'Shimmering' in the album's opening half hints tantalisingly at something grander to come later on, though you're not quite sure that ever arrives.

However, it's in the themes and lyrics of Rachel Davies - her voice aerial and delicate - that the record starts to open up about its own secrets. If Violet Cries suggested old folk tales told while sheltering away from the heat of war, then the similarly cryptic messages that make up Wash The Sins Not Only The Face veer more towards surrealism, and suggest a journey away from that previous scene in order to find new purpose ("It's all I can do to assemble myself") the shape of which Davies can't be sure of. This search for clarity is reflected in words that constantly look towards a clear sky, "bleached in moonlight, bathed in bonewhite". Davies cites Sylvia Plath as an influence on this album, and that shows in an earthiness in her own words, evoking a strong sense of nature - though their semantics are hardened: "slate", "cobalt", "dumb mud" dripping.

The overriding notion of unidentifiable longing is represented most strongly in 'Yellow Wood', possibly the group's most fully-realised song to date. It sees them at their most haunting and lucid, Davies' calling out to be found becomes submerged under Daniel Copeland's tom-heavy rhythms and the constellation-searching evocations of guitarist Thomas Fisher. Yet even as they look forward they're turned back to the past; "it's lonely in the shade that wicked memory makes", murmur the lyrics, and from then on the album is gradually pulled back towards previously-trodden tumult. In contrast to Violet Cries, which felt like it was raging against the dying of the light, Wash The Sins Not Only Your Face gradually allows itself to be overhauled and then smothered by the darkness.

Contentment on the journey is seemingly found on the unwinding expanse of 'Putting Down The Prey', only for 'The Fall Of Glorieta Mountain' to be subsumed by new doubt and - finally - 'Smashed To Pieces In The Still Of The Night's' fiery seven minutes return the trio back to their turbulence. You can hear the distress as the band realise their wanderings have gone full-circle, the shape that finally looms into view all-too familiar. Ultimately it's the breaking of a cycle that leads to change and, on this record of both progression and recollection, Esben And The Witch suggest that they haven't yet quite achieved that. However, it's their battle in trying to that make that happen that makes this such a fascinating listen.

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Jan 25, 2013 12:42pm

When you've loved a previous album so much it's sometimes a nervous listen to the follow up when a band progresses. In this case, however, it's a definite step onwards in what feels like the right direction. Be(witch)ing

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Jan 25, 2013 11:57pm

It's not as bad as Toy, but it's pretty much the 80s gothy equivalent of Foxygen. I appreciate how the Quietus' dislike of empty, generic music depends upon which decade and tropes it rips off.

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Jan 26, 2013 2:21am

Great album! It does make a difference which decade is being "ripped off". The idealistic decade of the 60s, when everything was possible, gave way to the more realistic decade of the 80s, where possibilities became finite. It's as if the 70s was the real last hoorah for the "Great Generation" and we are left with what remains.

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Jan 26, 2013 3:16pm

In reply to Steve:

Toy? Good grief, don't bring that name up again - I'd just about forgotten them before you spoilt it!

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Jan 27, 2013 11:24am

Everything they do has an underpinning of dullness to me. On paper I should love it,
but there's just some sort of lack of fire.

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Jan 30, 2013 4:40am

Preferable to fucking Dutch Uncles and the modern day virus of whimsical middle class indie excretia that passes for music on radio 6 nowadays
still havent heard those cunts play this yet,to busy sucking Dutch Uncles hairless cocks,apart from Sunday service that station has really gone down the fucking toilet quicker than a Dutch uncles b-side
same old monotonous drab middle class indie bollocks regurgitated over and over since 1985
sad day when Peel died,now we see the baron landscape he left
Esben and the witch-at least they are attempting something vaguely challenging,probably all bollocks but better than listening to fucking Dutch uncles or Everything Everything

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