When Esben and The Witch dropped their debut LP Violet Cries, it was a pretty good time to be a gothy band. The word ‘witch’ was, for a brief second, hard currency, Zola Jesus was breaking out from her lo-fi beginnings to create massively appealing icy goth-pop, and interest in darker aesthetics was everywhere. While promising, Violet Cries had a lot of ideas that it didn’t really do much with. That problem is nicely resolved in Wash the Sins Not Only the Face, an album of brightly bleak pop that keeps it simple, shimmering and much heavier than you might expect.
Album opener “Ice Spar” hits with a blast of distorted guitar with Rachel Davies’ voice emerging from the din like a metalgaze Liz Fraser. It’s a beautifully powerful beginning that shakes you around by the neck even as it tugs the soul’s heart. The swaying, churning “Slow Wave” is hypnotic, and by the time “When The Head Splits” finally comes sauntering up, all very proper post-punk power and glorious choral hooks, I’m a tad—just a tad, mind, let’s not lose ourselves— in awe. It’s easy to ape or mine that early 4AD sound, but it’s another to emerge with something that stands up in its own time. “Shimmering”‘s wailing verses and tense guitars come closest to goth goth, of the long crimped hair and velvet skirt variety, but without any of the inherent cheese that seems to permeate it *pushes stack of All About Eve records behind desk.*
“Deathwaltz” clambers back up into dreampop territory, replacing moodiness with yearning and harrowing guitars that fade into the nervously picked notes of the murkily Bauhausian “Despair”. Some might see such a blatant sleeve-wearing of influences as a negative, but honestly: I love Bauhaus. I love Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine and all that sort of stuff, and if you can whip all those flavors up onto a single slab of vinyl and still make me feel like I’m hearing something new enough to keep my attention (such as the smokey, industrial rock-tinged “Putting Down The Prey” and the triumphant galloping climax of “Smashed to Pieces in the Still of the Night”) then I’m happy. Wash the Sins Not Only the Face isn’t just another take on retro post-punk idealism, but the natural offspring of underground dark subculture in all its mutated offshoots. ~
Published January 23, 2013. Words by Daniel Jones.