Perhaps you’re already aware of the curse of the ‘sophomore slump’, which strikes fear into the hearts of all young groups. The horror story of the ‘difficult second album’, that scuppers artists on the ascendant, as the ideas that were fresh on their debut LP appear fatally stale the second time around. Or, lacking confidence in the sounds they’ve thus far explored, bands may blindly hurtle towards a radical new direction which proves their doom.
Myth or fact, all that really matters is that Esben and the Witch have comprehensively transcended any such slump or curse with their second album Wash the Sins Not Only the Face: a majestic, haunting and triumphant set that’s not ‘difficult’ in the slightest.
Their second full-length brings to fruition concepts that glimmered on their first, 2011’s acclaimed Violet Cries, but there are no laurels being rested upon here. No, to make their second album, their first masterpiece, Esben and the Witch questioned, challenged and changed some of the very impulses that had brought them this far, rewiring their past to find the way to their future.
“I’m proud of our first album,” says Rachel Davies. “But we’ve grown so much, we’ve honed the way we do things…”
“The first album, we were still figuring out who we were, what our roles were, what we could do,” adds Daniel Copeman. “We had a clearer idea of what we wanted to achieve on this album, and how we could achieve it. We’re more focused, more confident.”
Well-named after a Danish fairy tale possessing a similar air of magic and menace, Esben and the Witch formed in 2008 after Copeman moved from Southampton to Brighton, where he met Thomas Fisher. Sharing an obsessive love of music and an itching desire to make some, Copeman and Fisher spent their afternoons learning to programme the former’s collection of drum machines, while Fisher began exploring the guitar. The pair wanted lyrics and vocals in their music, but neither could sing, and so began an unsuccessful series of auditions. That was until Fisher bumped into old friend Rachel Davies, and asked her to join their fledgling group.
Davies, who’d just graduated from Brighton University, had always written, dabbling in poetry and muddling her way around an acoustic guitar. Now she found herself in the front room of the flat where Copeman was then living, its bay windows looking out over the Brighton seafront. Plugging their gear into a motley array of amps, and thanking the fates that their neighbours had no problem with them making a racket, the trio spent hours exploring the sounds within them and between them, discovering and fashioning Esben and the Witch’s identity as the waves crashed before them.
In February 2010, a debut single surfaced: Lucia, at the Precipice, a sulphurous murmur, an exquisite creep, staking out Esben and the Witch’s unique flavour of ghostly, bruised pop. It secured the group a deal with Matador Records, a label with an enviable history of picking up on such rare treasures. Violet Cries arrived as 2011 dawned, gathering praise from the music press, airplay from more discerning corners of the media, and a dedicated following charmed by the group’s adventurous lullabies and emotive epics.
The album took them on the road, and the road took them all over the globe; to America, where five hours in the van between venues was considered a relatively short trip. It was on these journeys that their second album began to take shape, in the conversations they shared, the music they listened to, the ever-shifting landscapes that sped past their windows. During one of these trips they happened upon an ancient Greek palindrome, “Nipson anomemata me monan opsin”, which, when translated, gave the new album its title. And during these van-held conversations the concepts that would haunt and define the album began to take shape.
That's one of the more profound differences between Wash the Sins Not Only the Face and its predecessors: that the group entered the songwriting process and, later, the studio with ideas of how they wanted the songs and the album to sound. Their debut feels to them now like a snapshot of a group in transition, still forming, a collation of all the things that had inspired them, as they were feeling their way towards what they could become. The new album, however, was arrived at following productive discussion between the members; creative decisions were made, Oblique Strategies followed, every detail considered and debated, every word and note worked upon until it made sense as part of the larger whole.
They decided early on that this album had to crash in on a bold note, a statement of intent. So they wrote Iceland Spar, its radiant glide and thrumming chords triumphant, locating new shades within the Esben palette. They wanted the album to unfurl like a journey, like a day, so the opening songs are possessed of a brightness, an optimism that ebbs away over the disc’s course, giving way to the bleak lonesomeness of Yellow Wood, the moment where the sun sets, closing track Smashed to Pieces in the Still of the Night ending proceedings in the dark of the night, at a peak of drama and intensity.
Just as Iceland Spar was always intended to open the album, Smashed to Pieces… was penned expressly as its exeunt. Its climactic torrent was inspired by a trip to Vienna, where the band saw a piece by American artist Lawrence Wiener on the side of the Haus des Meeres, bearing the song’s gnomic but expressive title. “We don’t know what his intention was,” says Fisher, “but the words really resonated with us, and with what we wanted for the album’s ending.”
This conceptual approach extended to the creative roles played by the members themselves. Previously, lyrics were written more collaboratively between the trio; this time Rachel assumed the sole responsibility herself, honing her words and stories. The lyrics are inspired by T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath, by the works of Vladimir Nabokov and Philip Pullman, Salvador Dali and the surrealist movement; that, and late night van conversations about what it would be like to meet your doppelganger thousands of miles from home. Soon, these elements formed a powerful whole. Daniel switched his focus to keyboards and drums; Thomas, meanwhile, discovered his confidence with the six-string had only grown on the road, and was wielding his axe with newfound purpose. Together, they pared back any extraneous atmospherics and sonic clutter in favour of clarity.
The result is an album that, placed alongside Violet Cries, feels like a fuzzy image that’s pulled successfully into focus, like this trio have edged a momentous distance further along their journey, sensing the power they wield, learning how to use that power effectively. It makes you wonder where this road will take them next. More to the point, it makes you want to savour where Esben and the Witch are at now, because Wash the Sins Not Only the Face is a sublime experience, an album whose mysteries and riddles will entrance.