Esben and the Witch make a pretty big splash with their dense, promising debut Violet Cries, some heralding them as the leaders in a resurgence of gothic (NB: not goth) music, usually described as ‘darkwave’. The new record, Wash the Sins Not Only the Face, unfortunately squanders that promise, getting lost somewhere between really exploring their sound and trying to broaden their audience.
When they first arrived, Esben and the Witch were criticised for effectively taking themselves too seriously, with their gloomy aesthetic, high-minded lyrics and mysterious song names. Wash the Sins, whose titled is based on a Greek palindrome, clearly continues this trend, but with one crucial difference; while the first album held room for improvement, it contained enough self-respect and maintained the image enough to get away with it. The new album, however, does not.
Many of the songs have distinctly popular-music sensibilities, with more well-defined structures (including a pet demon of mine, the Obligatory Middle Eight), faster pace, more distinctive guitar lines, and catchier melodies on the vocals. ‘Slow Wave’ for example, is based on what could be described as a ‘riff’, and the vocal hook on ‘When the Head Splits’ is catchy as anything, not something you would have found on a previous album. The first single, ‘Darkwaltz’ is probably the best example, it’s a well written pop song, albeit a dark one, dominated by a very indie-rock tremolo guitar line worthy of The Joy Formidable. However, this development is not inherently a bad thing, and there are moments when it results in genuinely good music. ‘When the Head Splits’ and ‘Deathwaltz’, are genuinely good songs, as is ‘The Fall of Glorieta Mountain’.
It does, on the other hand, raise three underlying issues; firstly, that the singer Davies’ voice doesn’t really match that style of music. It works best when it’s double up with some creepy harmonies, melting into the textures, but there were moments when it simply sounded weak. During the first two tracks, ‘Iceland spar’ and ‘Slow Wave’, it’s left mostly on its own when the music cuts out to very sparse drums and guitars, and it simply doesn’t work. Secondly, the lack of bass in the mix becomes infinitely more noticeable; while on the first album this was covered by the use of more extensive layering and electronic elements (which, despite very occasional use, such as at the beginning of ‘Despair’, are severely lacking on this album), this style of songwriting reveals it to be a much more of a problem. Many songs simply sound hollow without a bass guitar or some heavier synths really grounding the more rhythmic, pacier songs, and the bass drum is moved lower in the mix in favour of the hazier sounds of the snare and cymbals. This makes quite a lot of difference: instead of thick textures, the music just sounds like a matt finish – the droning guitars and ethereal vocals simply have no base of sound on which to build, which is so important for type of dark, atmospheric music.
The third problem caused by this pop influence is the big one, which is that Ebsen and the Witch don’t seem committed to this new direction for the music. The album is lost between wanting to become a darker, more sonically blurred version of the XX and yearning for more epic Post-Rock ambience. Clearly, the latter has been on their mind through writing the record; it opens with an amazing cloud of tremolo, reverb and cymbals, many of the Obligatory Middle Eights take the opportunity to develop the music with textures and layers, building and crescendoing. The last section of the final track, ‘Smashed to Pieces in the Still of the Night’, with a driving snare drum trudging towards the end and the fading distortion is so clearly influenced by godspeed you! black emperor I could find you the section of East Hastings the drummer had in mind when playing.
But Post-Rock takes time. It takes patience to let the music really develop; “all you need is four chords and a really long runway”, as Efrim Menuck once said, and this clashes with the pressure of the band to go in a poppier direction. Interesting sections, like the heavier noise of ‘Despair’ and the end of ‘Smashed to Pieces’ are not allowed to be explored as much as the music warrants, and so many songs seem to just end, begging for more development and a little more time; ‘Iceland spar’, ‘Slow Wave’, ‘Darkwaltz’, ‘Despair’, ‘Putting Down the Prey’, they all just… stop. Because pop songs aren’t ten minutes long. And that’s sad. What’s more, due to the nature of these squidged-down Post-Rock influences, towards the end of the album, it gets a little… well, boring. On their own, they’re interesting, but that kind of music simply doesn’t really work in a pop setting, it gets repetitive. I would give the band some credit if I thought this was purposeful, an attempt to render more extensive, cinematic music more accessible, but I don’t. It feels like indecision.
The album isn’t bad. It just makes a lot of mistakes, and doesn’t play towards the group’s strengths. Not that I would have wanted exactly the same album as Violet Cries either, a band must change in order to grow, but it needs to decide in which direction. A lot of people who get recommended Wash the Sins Not Only the Face may really like it, because it has brought something new to pop music, but I really hope it doesn’t win any awards.