Esben and the Witch Wash the Sins Not Only the Face Review

Album. Released 2013.  

BBC Review

Brighton band eschews cliché, sounding sleek, fluid and effortlessly modern on album two.

Martin Aston 2013

What used to be labelled goth back in the dark ages of post-punk, and is now called darkwave, has never been the most credible of musical genres.

The media has generally sneered at those who’d rather solve their problems by turning the lock on their bedroom door for eight hours than take to the streets in protest. Admittedly, black nail varnish and backcombed hair did look a bit pantomime, and some sentiments sailed very close to the wind – Bauhaus’ Stigmata Martyr, anyone?

Singer Rachel Davies and co-guitarists/studio boffins Daniel Copeman and Thomas Fisher clearly enjoy sailing close, too: not only by their band name (named after a Danish fairytale) but also the album title Wash the Sins Not Only the Face. It’s the follow-up to 2011’s debut Violet Cries, whose cover resembled a still from The Blair Witch Project.

Yet at every turn, this new album eschews clichés – any strident shrieking, chanting and cod imagery – for something sleek, fluid and effortlessly modern. After their first album’s density of production and matching mood, they’ve discovered a new sense of levity. This witch can now fly.

So if When That Head Splits sound gruesome in theory, in principle it’s heady dream-pop, fusing late-period Siouxsie and the Banshees with Beach House and the kind of romantic dread that the 4AD label once specialised in. And talking of 4AD circa 1986, Despair sounds very like the sadly underrated and long-forgotten Clan of Xymox, another trio who used dark paint to create euphoric pictures.

By the time of The Fall of Glorieta Mountain, Esben and the Witch are more of a piece with The xx, while Yellow Wood and the closing Smashed to Pieces in the Still of the Night (early candidate for song title of 2013) are the fountainhead for the newly minted genre of goth-gaze, a repository of beautiful spangling noise with a side helping of shadow.  

Or perhaps we should just call it darkwave, or do away with genres altogether. Because what the likes of Esben and American duo Exitmusic are doing is breathing new life into music that has too long been considered the preserve of old ghosts.

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