Friday, 19 November 2010

Esben and the Witch @ Electrowerkz

In shadowy crannies journalists and industry types are circling, tweeting into Blackberries and, if they're more old school, scribbling into notebooks. T-shirts and tote bags are being flogged. Red Stripes are being downed and Jägerbombs shot down the hatch. Suddenly there's a chill, a kind of unearthly presence has taken hold. All eyes are focused front and centre. There's a hush. The stage flashes crimson and then icy blue, lighting up a skull and a tiny stuffed owl on one of the amps. A whirl of smoke puffs across the front row, obscuring everything in sight. And then, to perplexed cheers and a sound that's a bit like a Gregorian chant in a sandstorm, Esben and the Witch enter. Only their shadows are visible.

The buzz band of the moment couldn't have chosen a better venue for tonight's gig. Electrowerkz fits their reverb and spook-heavy shoegaze perfectly. Despite being huge and cavernous, it's strangely claustrophobic, perhaps due to the fact it used to be an old metalworks and may well be haunted by the ghosts of those who died in industrial accidents. On top of this, the décor is a hangover from the weekend's goth club night, Slimeworks, which has the lights as low as possible, the dayglo spotlights up as high as can be, and gives the impression that torture porn cages and cobwebs are not just for Halloween. It smells of bonfires (or is it burning flesh?). The overall feeling is one of being trapped inside the set of Saw 3D.

The band's performance ups the goth factor even more significantly. A bit like that old adage about rubbernecking at car accidents, you can't drag your eyes away, despite the music being so intense that it begins to bring you out in goosebumps. Singer Rachel's vocals are mournfully glacial, but can build to a bluesy howl when needed. The rumble of the bass, the crash of the cymbals and the pounding of the drums seem to control your heartbeat, slowing it one minute and then raising it to the point where you think you might have a panic attack the next. The whole ambience is strangely beautiful, while at the same time making you feel tense and twitchy. It's a bit like staring into the eyes of a deer and then watching it get mercilessly slaughtered.

Everything about the performance is cool and controlled, a masterclass in sustaining an audience's attention. But this is not necessarily through stage presence: besides a few mumbled expressions of thanks, there's very little interaction. Instead, the band retain complete autonomy because they make the kind of music you need to pay attention to. Not just because they're doing something 'important' (although there is a sense in the air that this is a band you 'should' like, a band that are breaking ground, that's not entirely the case. There's a bit of Siouxsie Sioux in there, some Birthday Party, some Jesus and Mary Chain, a little pinch of Joy Division.)

No, the reason you need to listen is because Esben and The Witch don't make throwaway music. They make long-player music, the kind of tunes that need a repeat listen before you can take them in. They're not for you trigger-happy iPod shufflers. They reward those people who feel they have the time and patience to perch cross-legged on their beds in silence (maybe by candlelight) and stare at the ceiling, not moving until they've ingested every bewitching morsel. They need to be savoured slowly, like a fine merlot. Or as one audience member put it as we shuffled out into the bitter November night: “They're the kind of band you want to have a sit down and a think about”. There's always the tube ride home.

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