Live Review: Esben and the Witch supported by Trophy Wife, & Fixers @ The Harley, 07.02.11
There’s been a bit of a buzz going ‘round about Esben and the Witch and the somewhat unearthly sonic landscaping of their debut album Violet Cries (review here). Related links have been flying to and fro across the office computers for a while now so you can imagine our collective excitement at being able to witness the band’s live show first-hand….
The first support band is Fixers, the newest addition to Oxford’s ‘Blessing Force’…nope, not a Monty Python-esque sketch based around church etiquette, but a collective of math rock/indie/electronica bands and artists from Oxford doing their own thing, and world be damned ( See: Foals, Jonquil, Pet Moon).
Fixers impress me. They have an eclectic and catchy sound which consists of a tight funky rhythm section, some electronica and some unusual vocals. Sometimes I think Fixers’ eclecticism does hinder rather than help them though and I hope they continue to hone their sound so that it is well and truly unique, experimental and interesting (all the elements are there).
Next up is another Blessing Force associate: Trophy Wife. Now, you’ll have to excuse me while my ‘Aloof critic’ persona goes on a long and indefinite vacation to somewhere exotic and sunny, because I need to rave about this band a little bit now…
It’s not often that a support band oozes with such musical accomplishment and energy as this, and to be honest with you I felt a bit bewildered after Trophy Wife had finished their set. They literally exploded on to the stage with a shining vitality that can only mean they will be HUGE. I’m seeing a spate of festival appearances, radio guest spots, magazine interviews… bright lights, big city! (Reminder: on vacation…lying on beach…rum sun-downer in hand).
The band remind me of when I was lucky enough to witness some of Foals’ earlier shows in Brighton – that same unbelievably tight rhythm section that vibrates through every fibre of your body and that same tangible ripple of excitement running through the crowd. Think synths, electronica, danceable hooks, awesome beats (courtesy of a standing and infectiously exuberant drummer/percussionist) and some great vocals and harmonies kind of in the vein of 80’s band Talk Talk.
If that wasn’t enough, the band covered Joanna Newsom’s ‘Book of Right -On’ in a way that can only be described as “Joanna Newsom has never been covered like this before”. If I wasn’t sold beforehand, after that cover version my name was on the dotted line faster than Sam spotting the ‘G&T for £2’ sign behind the bar.
And now to the main event:
As Esben take to the stage after some minor technical tweaking, an eerie calm comes over the Harley. The room is filled with otherworldly and odd noise.
Singer Rachel Davies is all hair-in-the-eyes and charisma and when she starts to sing her mystical and powerful voice only add to the intensity that Esben and the Witch bring to the stage.
It’s quite strange to go from something as upbeat as Trophy Wife to something as serious and dense as Esben – but that is what the band are all about: creating an atmosphere and a narrative and creating a wall of sound that does more than it says on the tin.
The layered droning, electronics and beats of the songs build to a noisy, often dark and sometimes ritualistic/trance-like climax whilst all the while maintaining a bleak and haunting atmosphere.
Particular highlights from the set include the rousing ‘Marching Song’, and the somewhat epic, dark and shoegazy ‘Warpath’ which really shows off the band’s ability to create a forceful and ghostly atmosphere on stage. Set closer ‘Eumenides’ thrills with dreamy mix of electronica and longing vocals. Its worth mentioning that the songs live don’t exactly sound like their recorded counterparts – some reworking was done here to make each song fit for a live setting.
There is something messy, wild and unpredictable about Esben and the Witch which makes them exciting to watch live.
The only thing I would say is that sometimes I felt like the band’s musical energy was directed inward instead of projected outwards from the stage, which made the music feel inaccessible at times – and let’s face it, this kind of music is not going to be for everyone in the first place. Whether it was nerves or genuine introversion, in my humble opinion, I think a hearty slab of touring will allow the band to come out of their shells a bit and embrace their performance with strength and with vulnerability.
Otherwise their performance was pretty mesmerizing, artistic and fiercely untamed – I enjoyed it. An all-round great show, say I.