Two years ago, the English darkwave/ goth rock act Esben and the Witch released Violet Cries, a fairly impressive, though not all together consistent debut. The debut possesses enough positive qualities to catch the ear of any goth rock aficionado: spooky, expressive vocals that really, really sound like Siouxsie Sioux, accompanied by dark, infectious guitar work and subtle but effective keys.
However, in the same way that even the best raw materials only amount to what the craftsman makes of them, great vocals and moving melodies need to be melded into powerful songs; unfortunately, too many of the songs on Violet Cries amount to little more than a pretty chord progression and vocal hook that lead nowhere. Esben and the Witch’s sophomore release, Wash the Sins Not Only the Face (what a name!) displays improvement in overall sound quality and a diversification of style, but with regards to songwriting, the group has only taken the smallest of steps forward.
Esben and the Witch’s “Iceland Spar”
The production on Wash the Sins… is rich and textured. The guitars are strong and full-bodied. The clean passages are as bright and clear as ice water. When distortion kicks in, the riffs reverberate like bombs exploding in a compression chamber. Rachael Davies’ voice is upfront in the mix, allowing her emotive, heartfelt delivery to strike hard. The keyboards lie in the backdrop, offering soft and subtle textures. Wash the Sins… sees Esben and the Witch exploring a wider range of styles. While the group’s sound is still firmly grounded in the gothic/darkwave aesthetic, numerous shoegaze and post-rock riffs bring color to the record.
Despite these surface improvements, the members of Esben and the Witch haven’t totally perfected their craft as songwriters. It says a lot that the two best songs—“Iceland Spar” and “Despair”—are also the shortest songs. “Iceland Spar” ebbs between two extremes: a thundering, skyscraping riff accompanied by howling vocals, and a soft, affectionate verse. The interplay between these two poles is absolutely riveting. The infectious “Despair” is fit for the dance floor with its driving drum beat, looping chord progressions and surging chorus. Many of the longer, slow-paced songs fill too much space with too few ideas. “The Fall of Glorieta Mountain” and “Putting Down the Prey” are especially guilty of using too little paint for too big a canvas.
Nonetheless, there are some signs that Esben and the Witch are capable of composing more complete songs. “Yellow Wood” starts with a soft and simple pairing of guitar and electronic pulsations that carefully build toward evermore beautiful vocal lines and energetic rhythms. The idea is simple, but very well executed. After a somewhat laborious start, “Smashed to Pieces in the Still of the Night” achieves a similarly impressive genesis.
Wash the Sins Not Only The Face proves that Esben and the Witch are capable of producing individual cuts that are quite excellent. The group’s primary challenge remains to prove that it can create enough quality songs to fill an entire album. There are certainly songs on here that are good enough that fans of the genre should give the album a listen and pluck out their favorites. However, if you’re looking for a record to enjoy from start to finish, Wash the Sins… isn’t gonna cut it.
Written by Jael Reboh
OurVinyl | Contributor