Music

Esben & The Witch: Wash the Sins Not Only the Face

"Esben & The Witch 2: Unhappy Campers." Angels with dirty faces come clean.


Esben & The Witch

Wash the Sins Not Only the Face

Label: Matador / Beggars Banquet
US Release Date: 2013-01-22
UK Release Date: 2013-01-21
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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.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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