On their muddled sophomore album, Brighton's Esben and the Witch churn out gothic-tinged art-rock that unfolds in an obscure fog, washing over without truly penetrating.

The trio's heavily hyped debut, 2011's 'Violet Cries,' used the same basic formula: glistening electric guitars, booming tom-toms, and the haunting aphrodisiac croon of vocalist Rachel Davies. But that album also had a sense of dynamics and forward thrust, even in its dreamiest moments -- qualities sorely lacking on 'Wash the Sins Not Only the Face.'

The problem, even more than the often monotonous songwriting, is the mix: 'Wash the Sins' is ragged and lo-fi, with guitars and drums and vocals all merging into shapeless murk. A good example is 'Iceland Spar,' which opens the album with a metallic shoegaze sprawl, alternating noisy, distorted blasts with atmospheric stretches -- but given the album's garage-level fidelity, both extremes feel muted. Even when the band strips back the sonic chaos, allowing their songs some breathing room -- like on the sparse, xx-styled guitar meditation 'The Fall of Glorietta Mountain' -- the burden lies on Davies' tuneless vocal texture, with hardly a melody in earshot.

Without the eerie studio mysticism of their debut, Esben and the Witch rely more on primal energy this time out. 'Wash the Sins' works best when there's tension involved: Highlights like the thunderous 'Deathwaltz' and 'Slow Wave' use that live-in-the-room feel to their advantage, pitting percussive blasts against muscular guitar riffs. But they're consistently more interested in capturing moods than developing songs. Davies, in particular, sounds disengaged, mumbling Sylvia Plath-inspired gibberish in a disaffected mono-drone. ("Fault lines disappear, now the hanging wall is here," she moans on 'Yellow Wood.' "A wishbone pulled apart by a child in the dark." Good to know!) And even the most visceral moments are weighed down by indulgent bloat: Most tracks hover for five or six minutes, unsure when they're supposed to end -- or why they exist in the first place.

Sweet relief arrives at the end of droning eight-minute closer 'Smashed to Pieces,' as ricocheting snares propel the track to an emphatic climax. But it's ultimately a weightless gesture: a fleeting rainbow after an unrelenting flood.

4 out of 10 diffuser.fm rating

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