It’s two years to the month since Brighton gothic-indie types Esben and the Witch outed their début proper, Violet Cries – an (at least superficially) intensely disquieting long-player, the release of which was met with appositely violent uproar and oodles of ardent critical acclaim. They’ve lingered in the periphery of earshot ever since – toiling away, if only infrequently troubling the listener with, say, the spectral geometries of their backdated Hexagons EP, or a spattering of live show every now and then. This week more than ever, however, they appear to have made flesh for the foreseeable with the heavily anticipated dissemination of their sophomore, Wash the Sins Not Only the Face. It’s not exactly been a long time coming, though there’s a whole load of (perhaps impatient) avidity coming its way whether they like it or not.
That said, much enthusiasm swiftly dwindles as the bombast of opener Iceland Spar dribbles into being: its name (inadvertently or otherwise) the melting together of two of Britain’s most enduringly deficient supermarkets, they evidently intend for it to masquerade as a reintroduction imposing as a horizon-devouring glacier and cerebrum-chilling as an afternoon whiled away in the depths of the freezer. Instead, it’s as though a still lukewarm regurgitation of The Joy Formidable’s A Balloon Called Moaning – an inauspicious beginning if ever there were one, and one that lacks the austerity of its predecessor.
Though this severity of perspective always felt somewhat postured, elaborate as it may have been: moody as most blues and embellished with a scowl to crack Robert Smith’s eternal frown, it always felt as though Rachel Davies was conscientiously projecting a premeditated image, or peradventure an act rather, upon herself. The band’s central protagonist – and an again perhaps at least only superficially complex portrayal, at that – it was an embodiment of the inscrutably enigmatic and although we’ve now another ten songs against which the band may be judged, the veracity of who Davies is (or who the Witch, or indeed Esben are) remains a mystery that, in truth, proves mystifying as the angular, Blessing Force-esque shimmer of Slow Wave.
For Esben and the Witch’s most winsome facet was once their ability to fabricate prevaricating tales of woebegone damsels and interweave these with an undying penchant for debilitating afflictions, as they emitted these intricate lyrical idiosyncrasies over unnerving wafts of ghostly melancholia. Though where they once penned paeans to cerebral palsy and so forth, their at once nebulous narratives here concern the moment When That Head Splits and so on in a sign of dumbing down maybe, though dulling down most definitely. Rhythmic clatter is here manically strewn about Davies’ aggravated groans so as to clutter these few moments, and Despair suffers a similar fate of intemperance hindering impact as messy samples ring awkwardly around ticking clicks with the dismaying insistence of a finger skimming about the rim of a wineglass. As the trio explode into another vocally unintelligible chorus, it’s as though the glass, and the album with it shatters into umpteen invisible smithereens of delusion.
Though there are illusions of past grandeur in and amongst this gentle disappointment: the album’s longest instance and its bespoke denouement, Smashed To Pieces In The Still Of The Night, is a climactic maelstrom of tremolo and treble; drummed tempest and tumult that not even flecks of inessential electronics can damage, whilst the cascading, weepy guitar lines endemic in Yellow Wood crust the track with a bittersweet sheen. Deathwaltz too – a seething berceuse of sorts – minimises the fuss to maximise that same hexing effect ‘the Witch once magicked at will.
Thus their possessing blackened powers may have lightened up a fair few touches having been quite perplexingly smudged in places (see nigh on every vocal) and although the spell may not yet have snapped entirely, they certainly no longer captivate as once they could with an incontrovertibly cunning guile. Wash the Sins Not Only the Face? Esben and the Witch were arguably at their most enchanting when they were rather more grubby – both morally and with that somatically, though above all musically.
Released: January 21st, 2013 [Matador]