Esben and the Witch at Swn © Kate Goodacre, 2011

Forward March

Esben and the Witch – Wash the Sins Not Only the Face (Matador Records)
January 21, 2013

The concept of the 'difficult second album' must by now be one of the most over used clichés in music, assuming that any band who’ve lasted long enough to get through the recording and touring process of one record must instantly be hamstrung by the thought of another. Often the reality is very different, especially when a band are able to take a step back, work out where the room for improvement lies and focus on producing a better record, as Esben and the Witch have here.

Not that debut effort Violet Cries was a poor album at all. It’s just that next to this new offering Wash the Sins Not Only the Face, it now very much comes across as a series of decent ideas that lacked the precision and development the band show here.

From the moment 'Iceland Spar' begins with a rousing crash of guitar noise, the listener is thrust into the kind of continuing intensity that an act who leave themselves open to accusations of taking themselves too seriously needs to achieve, to let the quality of the music do the talking.

One way in which the band’s sound has noticeably developed is Rachel Davies' growth into the role of strong female vocalist. This underpins everything now, as she projects herself in the mould of, say, a Natasha Khan. While she would previously briefly appear amidst the mist of meandering instrumentation, this record allows her voice to be the focal point - whether she's softly cooing through the beautifully sparse ballad 'The Fall of Glorieta Mountain', or racing through the soaring 'Deathwaltz'.

The instrumentation behind Davies has a focus that does that bit more to keep the attention of the listener. The aforementioned 'Iceland Spar' demands attention, while further into the record the band draw again and again on a real talent for coming up with a series of guitar arpeggios that bind together a number of tracks, best shown on the angst-driven, downbeat 'Shimmering' and ethereal, spooky 'Yellow House'.

However, the band save the best till last with closer 'Smashed to Pieces In the Still of the Night', as a lone picked guitar is periodically joined by blasts of percussion and feedback. Davies' delivery is downright sinister and the whole thing builds to an earth-shattering, dramatic climax. It leaves you knowing this a band who have hit their stride.

words: Steve Welch
archive image by Kate Goodacre

Esben and The Witch tour the UK in Febuary, playing Hare & Hounds, Birmingham (February 7), School of Art, Glasgow (8), The Bunker, Salford, Greater Manchester (9) and Kings Cross Scala, London (26).