With the customary once a winter cold snap hitting the UK over the past few days, it’s a rather appropriate time for Brighton’s Esben And The Witch to release their new album. Not only do they possess a name that conjures up images of a quirky, slightly sinister Scandinavian children’s TV animation, where trolls and goblins frolic across perpetually dark, snow-clad landscapes (indeed, the origin is apparently a Danish fairytale), but their music is also correspondingly icy in tone.
Founded in 2008, the trio’s strident debut album Violet Cries, released in 2011, saw them quickly pigeonholed as the new standard bearers of gothic rock, a genre deeply unfashionable since the late 1980s, when bands like The Sisters Of Mercy, Fields Of The Nephilim and The Mission were constructing the kind of hulking sonic edifices that were, depending on your point of view, either dramatically powerful or faintly preposterous.
Perhaps thankfully, Esben And The Witch’s sophomore outing, despite its dreadfully cumbersome title, sees them shift slightly towards the subtler fringes of gothic influence, recalling at times the shimmering beauty of the Cocteau Twins and the fragile prettiness of some of the gentler purveyors of shoegaze, notably Slowdive and The Cranes.
That said, the core ingredients of Esben And The Witch’s sound remain largely unchanged. Rachel Davies’s shrill, ghostly-pure vocals, the focal point of most tracks, are still swathed in layers of swirling feedback, with the portentous, choppy guitar riffs of Thomas Fisher and Daniel Copeman taking responsibility for propelling the songs along. In terms of overall mood and lyrical themes too, there’s precious little sign of any lightening up, with song titles like Despair, When That Head Splits and Deathwaltz unlikely to deliver anything in the way of bubblegum harmonies or sing-along choruses.
Wash the Sins Not Only the Face is at its best when the band tones down the relentlessness of their gloomy atmospherics and try something a little more restrained. In particular, The Fall Of Glorieta Mountain is a quiet gem, with just a lilting acoustic melody and Davies’s voice punctuated by occasional, unobtrusive ambient whooshes rather than the usual overwhelming wall of noise. At times like these, Esben and the Witch bring back fond memories of another ’80s gothic mainstay of a rather more cerebral vintage – the oft-overlooked, folk-tinged All About Eve.
Pulling Down The Prey is another highlight, with Davies in full Liz Fraser mode accompanied by an evocatively desolate guitar refrain and the howls of disembodied, wordless voices in the background. Fans of the more typical, frightfully earnest goth-rock melodrama will doubtless have their appetites sated by Deathwaltz; probably the record’s best example of the no holds barred, full frontal aural assault approach.
Like its predecessor, the biggest problem with Wash The Sins Not Only The Face is a lack of variation in style, mood and pace. That won’t worry the small, devoted corner of the record listening public who still maintain The Cure’s Pornography is the greatest album of all time, but something rather more expansive is required if Esben And The Witch are to break out of their black eyeliner and fishnet ghetto.
There are some encouraging if fleeting flickers of light and warmth here that hint there could be more to come in terms of musical development, but for now the group are little more than faithful revivalists of a niche subculture with limited appeal beyond those already converted.