Esben and the Witch followed up their inclusion on the BBC Sound of 2011 Shortlist (alongside the likes of Jessie J, James Blake and The Vaccines no less) with a debut album which was defiant in its distance from such accessibility. Violet Cries revelled in a dense claustrophobic atmosphere full of trembling build ups and macabre imagery but frustratingly short on cathartic releases. There were still moments of brilliance therein but overall it was a bit of a damp squib from a band who had displayed so much early promise. This second effort manages to further that promise remarkably well with a much more muscular and accessible sound than before.
This isn’t to say that the Brighton trio have gone soft on us. In fact the opposite is true if anything; the record thunders into life with the sledgehammer noise of ‘Iceland Spar’ before ‘Slow Wave’ puts a bit of impetus into their textures with gorgeous layering of guitar and vocals which sets a tone for the rest of the album. Really everything is just balanced far better here, it certainly feels like the album of a band named after a bleak Danish fairytale, if not overwhelmingly so. ‘Shimmering’ for instance is a majestic sighing anthem which feels hopeful in its gothic tones, and the layered effect of Rachel Davies’ vocals is transfixing and takes countless listens to unravel. There is a precision to the atmosphere which belies the relative youthfulness of the band, and first single ‘Deathwaltz’ showcases just how adept they are as they up the tempo and channel a more clearly defined pop influence.
New single ‘Despair’ hits a fair volume as well and also sees them lose control a little bit as guitar squalls bleed into enchanting vocals, something which they do remarkably well. All of this serves to emphasise and elevate the subtler moments, which were arguably too many before, the light this time making the shadow all that darker. Whilst their song titles might have you believe this is a misery-fest that’s not strictly true. There’s a purposefulness shining through which overrides any dankness. Marrying the dark intonations of Siouxsie or Bauhaus with the poise of Cocteau Twins and the delicate sheen of new dream-pop like School of Seven Bells creates something which doesn’t have to be listened to in a dark room.
Closing number, the brilliantly titled ‘Smashed to Pieces in the Still of the Night’ is the crowning glory; a wonderfully brooding build up of tension and imagery which then has a controlled burst into flames and in seven minutes sums up everything which is great about this band. This is a marked improvement on the density of their first effort, and sounds like a band who have grown very sure of themselves in the best way possible. Wash The Sins Not Only The Face is, ridiculous title aside, an early favourite of 2013 for me and if it can hold its own between winters might just be up there come the end of the year as well.