As Crowley cursin’ crypt kickers go, Brit trio Esben & The Witch’s spooksome début Violet Cries was a minor monster mash even if it failed to unleash a full-on tsunami of soiled pants n’ sleepless nights. It may’ve been more your respectable, book-wormish, lucky charm-wearing white wiccan rather than your living-in-a-cave, eating beating hearts n’ boiling skulls, thousand year-old warty hag but it was a fun-sized thriller all the same. Shiver y’all though as the howlin’ bell rings again. Exit light! Enter night! Time to hold onto your souls ... and strap on an adult diaper.
But don’t roll out the rubber sheets just yet, as in many ways Sins is the wiser, more mature sequel. Blokes in ill-fitting monster costumes leapin’ out o’ cupboards screaming “ARRGH!” are sent packing in favour of psychological suspense, cryptic poetry and atmosphere. A fever dream. Albeit with dry ice on tap. Lead necromancer Rachel ‘Diablo’ Davies no longer feels the impish desire to sneak up on you during tender introspection and bellow “VIOLENCE!” in your ear before scampering away giggling. Sins is performed poker-faced as a gradual dimming of the lantern. The inevitable, all-devouring crawl n’ creep of the night, the fog, the shadow. “Put out the light, and then put out the light!” The wistful, youthful tones of sorrowful sorcerer Davies act as little red riding hood hoppin’ into the woods. “I’ll leave this place / I’ll disappear,” she cheerfully chirps in a shoegazey haze across the brief, ominous opener “Iceland Spar”. Her delicate call at odds with the ensuing brick shithouse wall o’ sound earthquake percussion. Something wicked this way comes ...
... and it’s this brooding descent that proves the most compelling aspect of Sins. The album’s shadowing triptych of songs peer teasingly through a glass, darkly. The intricate “Slow Wave” reveals a band confident to allow more space into their sound than before. Holes for a dozen disembodied Davies’ doppelgangers to shade the ether with shivering echoes and melancholic mourning. “I saw myself / Sounding sleeping ... Wake me, I’m falling / Between two faces.” Funeral march drums tattoo an inescapable doom. Down we go. “When That Head Splits” and “Shimmering” further parade the slowdance away from campfire lights. The former sways like the Sundays’ angelic Harriet Wheeler trippin’ lullabies, from the path to the moor, enchanted by the nocturne, over yonder toward the abyss. The monochrome glow of “Shimmering” proves similarly bewitching. A lonesome guitar weeps n’ breaks like waves across the beach, Davies held in its hypnotic rapture, “Bending lazily / Beckoning to me.” A blur of fireflies and flickering stars, one siren’s call and the comfort in being sad.
“Yellow Wood” brings Sins’ first truly transcendent moment though. After a deliciously creepy candlelit intro, Davies’ appears drawn, ancient, chanting ‘n’ channelling, seemingly, from the Book of the Dead ... or a Supernatural Sat Nav. “So come find me / In the yellow wood / I’ll be waiting”. It builds its magnificent magick slowly over six minutes, rising, driving, to an almost 4/4 disco hedonistic trance. It’ll be like a mass exorcism when played live. The other moment when Sins truly levitates is during “The Fall of Glorieta Mountain”. Hallucinate “Suicide is Painless” on morphine. A chilling, drifting ache and Davies’ little-girl-lost voice clawing across Godless horizons, “Is that an answer or is this an echo?” An ocean of stark, beautiful imagery which provide a memorably breathtaking moment. As the music momentarily flatlines, its narrator is abandoned. She turns back, whispers, “I know you see me too”. Got chiiiiills, they’re multiplying.
It’s a darn shame then that Sins can’t sustain such sweet illusion to its dying breath. The black velvet curtain fails to curtail a visible ‘Esben Formula’. That initial arachnid, guitar riff, over which cherubic Davies’ evokes Dahl devilry like “Ants clamber over the petrified hand of the neighbour” before tribal drums bequeath their bone tremblin’ chorus. It threatens to become a haunted house ride for Clairvoyants. You know exactly what’s next and when to duck. “Despair” promises a real horror show. A pounding heartbeat fit to burst. Demon Davies’ demanding you “Put on my robes and pretend you’re me!” “You’re ready!” she declares but then 3-2-1, it’s over and you’re back in the room looking like a chump in an old dressing gown. The underwhelming “Putting Down the Prey” also fails to pierce the heart. Its body horror yearnings masking tee-hee terrors like “I climbed inside its blubbery hide”. Bring on the dancing Tauntaun! Elsewhere patchouli smellin’ single “Deathwaltz” whips up a storm of feverish urgency that could be slipped discretely betwixt the cobweb’d, black nail varnished ilk of the Mission and All About Eve. Its serpentine Mojo risin’ climax is giddily infectious but it’s comparatively clockwork and the spell slowly dissipates. The towerin’ “Here comes Godzilla!” seven-minute apocalyptic overture also proves ultimately toytown pantomime. Synchronised choreography under white bedsheets reviving the Thriller dance rather than actual brain chewin’ “Send more cops!” zombies. Incantations like “Lit by calcium light / We reached denouement” will probably raise a battalion of bemused eyebrows before they raise the Army of Darkness.
As supernatural sequels go, the heavenly-titled Wash the Sins Not Only the Face isn’t quite Evil Dead 2, but it’s certainly no Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows either. Like its predecessor, there’s much to admire if not always adore. Despite lacking the gonzo fun of Violet Cries the raw material itself is stronger. Davies’ devouring of Plath n’ Poe in particular makes for some captivating and ingeniously vivid imagery. Worringly though the Witch fall not ‘freaky enough for the freaks’ yet not ‘straight enough for the er, straights’ thus they maybe doomed to haunt a pop purgatory, eternally damn’d ‘n’ accurs’d with faint favour. One suspects they must ultimately conjure a clandestine n’ divine guiding master – a la Count Geoff of Barrow who illuminated the Horrors’ phantasmagoric Primary Colours – to make Esben’s Witch truly shine in the dark.