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. Apparently, it’s the English translation of a Greek palindrome.
The point is po-faced bands like Esben and the Witch live and die by the strength of their aesthetic. If you can boast a succession of cracking morbid-minded albums like These New Puritans and The Horrors, then you’re likely to get away with a light ribbing. If you attempt to write a mood instead of songs then the whole facade is going to tumble down extremely quickly. Wash the Sins Not Only the Armpits belongs to the latter club.
Arguably it’s a more accessible record than Violet Cries with sound collages largely swapped out for surges of squealing tremelo and soaring feedback. This is a potent combination when the Brighton-based trio rouse themselves from their default snails pace of softly picked strings and moaning vocals. Aside from ‘Iceland Spar’, a violent seesawing between the two extremes never materialises and you’re left wondering whether a song which inadvertently references two food and drink retailers really is Wash the Sins Not Only the Nostrils’ greatest achievement.
For the record, ‘Deathwaltz’ is a marginally superior track. “A terrible thing, this terrible love, it’s all that I am, it’s all that I am,” coos Davies, almost pleading the rest of her band into life. Pity such a compelling opening is met with a limp instrumental crescendo where everything interesting about the track gradually peters out to a tragic conclusion like a party animal balloon being slowly drained of helium. A nagging suspicion that Esben and the Witch may be collectively allergic to writing decent endings for their songs is only strengthened by their addiction to fade-outs.
As with all tragi-comedies, the real kicker behind Wash The Sins Not Only the Ingrown Toenail is the knowledge that Esben and the Witch are ambitious enough for us to demand better. These songs kicked with a malevolent judder when being previewed as part of a support slot for Errors last year yet seem eerily hollow in studio form. Dave Sitek’s re-working of ‘Deathwaltz’ puts the issue in particularly sharp focus. That is rigidly sticking to a singularly bleak frame of mind doesn’t preclude you from inventiveness. ‘Yellow Wood’, ‘Slow Wave’ and ‘Shimmering’ are decent enough songs in isolation but are oppressively formulaic when stacked together on the same album.
Above everything else, it’s this thoughtless grimacing which really grates. Esben and the Witch seem stuck on an autopilot where any levity is out of bounds and an abyss beckons for all the wrong reasons.
4Robert Leedham's Score