Cargo, London, 16th December 2009
A rumbling bass rages through the tunnelled venue, reverberating off the huge industrial pipes, leaving every audience member distinctly uncomfortable and a little bit terrified. “Sometimes we write things that are deliberately difficult to listen to” says Dan Copeman, one part of Brighton three-piece Esben and the Witch.
He’s not wrong. Esben and the Witch are artists of atmosphere. Their songs aren’t designed to be sung along to or to induce dancing of any kind. They are songs that infiltrate you. Rachel Davies’ haunting vocals mesmerise and enchant the room while walls of guitar, synth and percussion draw you into a paralysed trance.
“Marching Song” is the perfect intro. It starts very small then gradually, over a captivating gestation of beating drums and distorted guitars, swells into a beautiful haze of the “nightmare pop”, with which Esben have become synonymous. They are performers of great control and intensity and demand your attention.
They each play a fluid role; Dan contributes to the vocals, Tom and Rachel share the synth duties and most interestingly, there is no drummer. In the centre of the stage sits a lone drum and a symbol and at various points throughout the set each of them has their way with it. This shared percussion comes to a climax during forthcoming single, “Lucia”. Dan drums the call and Rachel taps a response. When Tom finally gets in on it with the symbol, the conversational drumming descends into brilliantly chaotic chatter.
“Corridors” starts with Rachel flashing a sweet smile to her band mates. This is in complete contrast to the performance we are about to be exposed to. Rachel is no longer sweet. She showcases a hugely powerful, deeply harrowing voice that dominates every corner of the room. There is genuine fear in her eyes and, coupled with the carnal synths and crashing guitars, a dark sense of isolation and claustrophobia. This is Esben and the Witch at their most terrifying.
Regular comparisons with Florence and the Machine and Bat For Lashes are unfounded and unwelcome. Esben and the Witch are not nearly so gentle. They toy with epic soundscapes, emotion and trauma in a similar way to Leeds post-rockers iLiKETRAiNS, but what they are doing really is their own. If you catch them on their UK tour in February, prepare to leave feeling a little bit broken.
Words by Joe Nockles
Photography by Liz Chambers
What did you think of the gig?
Laurie and Emily McCarthy: 8/10 “Better than we expected. They were wearing the same clothes as they had in a photo shoot we saw so we were a bit… dubious? But we’ll definitely try and see them again.”
Joshua: 7/10 “It sounded quite Portishead influenced. Was good though, really atmospheric”
Lorna-Rose: 9/10 “It was really raw! Interesting stage set-up. Was that a chaos pad they were using? That was cool”
Ro: 10/10 “Was really good to see them in a venue that suited them. They were the best thing I saw at End of the Road Festival and that bass sounded incredible tonight”