Esben And The Witch
Wash The Sins Not Only The Face
Jeff Pearson, January 31, 2013
Much of what Brighton-based band Esben And The Witch does comes from the past. Their name stems from an old Danish fairy tale of the same name, a story of a trickster tormenting a witch, and the title of their latest record, Wash The Sins Not Only The Face, comes from a Greek palindrome the band came across inscripted at the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople while on tour. The band’s dark, brooding tendencies reflect a post-industrial England where fairy tales exist only as soot-covered volumes deep in cellars, long-forgotten tales stored as vague lessons of morality long before the Internet was around to immortalize them. They seem to dwell in an eerie version of the past while feeling at home in the present, and their second full-length record sees the band feeling more comfortable with that identity than ever, expanding their reach further in both linear directions on a timeline, while also exposing the dark void that seems to loom in the underbelly regardless of the timeframe.
The songs on Wash The Sins Not Only The Face relentless in tone and atmosphere; there isn’t a smile to be found on the ten song, forty-seven minute set, but it seems that’s just how they’d have it. Daniel Copeman and Thomas Fisher lay down a dark and slightly minimalistic, yet compellingly intricate base for singer Rachel Davies to work atop, adding a lighter shade of black to their melancholy. Esben And The Witch have often been referred to as “gothic rock,” the downtrodden eighties counter to punk, but Davies is quick to shy away from those comparisons, saying they prefer to be thought of as a separate entity while still citing true gothic art as a huge influence, “Not that we would put ourselves into that category, but there’s definitely a link between our music and that architecture and literature.” It is perhaps due to their constantly being lumped in with the goth rock pioneers that Esben And The Witch often cite extra musical influences rather than simply naming off artists they enjoy. In embodying geographical locations and historical figures in literature–Davies claims that the poetry of TS Eliot and Sylvia Plath heavily influenced the lyrical content of Wash The Sins Not Only The Face–the band is able to present themselves to less biased ears.
It’s funny–normally it wouldn’t make sense for a gargoyle or flying buttress, an epic poem or surrealist wordplay to shape the way a record sounds, but Wash The Sins Not Only The Face is truly a product of those influences. Songs are hard to pin down to one specific style, though they are all cut from pretty much the same cloth. The subtle differences from track to track are what make the record an intriguing listen; the explosive post-rock bursts of “Iceland Spar” sit comfortable right alongside high voltage, percussive explorations in “When That Head Splits” and the lead single, “Deathwave.” The danger the record runs is that though these tracks are different stylistically, the overall melancholia that Esben And The Witch emits throughout Wash The Sins Not Only The Face can be somewhat monotonous.
They definitely have a point they seem to be driving home–that the world is a bleak place regardless of whether you dwell in a fairy tale or not–as even the track titles point out (“Despair,” “Putting Down The Prey,” “Smashed To Pieces In The Still Of The Night”). Wash The Sins Not Only The Face is not the record for the optimistic; it only takes so many times of hearing Davies sing, “You’ve come too far” atop the propulsive “Despair” before you start to believe it (though interestingly enough, “Despair” is probably the least sonically despairing track on the record.)
Esben And The Witch have once again proved themselves one of the front running harbingers of sorrow with their latest record, but like the gothic atmosphere surrounding the timeframe that inspired Wash The Sins Not Only The Face, perhaps it just falls at a time when the music world needs something a little sunnier. At the very least, something less perpetually gloomy.