The Pavilion Theatre in Brighton provided Esben and the Witch with an intimate atmosphere in which to craft their beguiling brew of paranoia, distorted frenzy and melodic desparation for an eager crowd.
Support came in the able form of Hind Ear followed by Trophy Wife. Hind Ear showed a knack for lovely vocal melodies and intricate guitar rhythms that fused well with the synth and percussion, throwing in a few unexpected twists along the way. However, a couple of songs descended into mediocre trance breakdowns, which detracted from the ability they clearly hold. With some tight production and a little more focus, Hind Ear could well be one to watch for the future.
Next up were Trophy Wife, who were hugely impressive. The Oxford band displayed a lot of promise with a unique style that is both languid and crisp at once; there’s more than enough edge to go with the dancier beats that they describe as “ambitiousless office disco”, when it is anything but. The band’s perofrmance was aided by the kinetic display of drummer Kit Monteith, whose upright electro kit allows him the freedom to draw the audience’s gaze. If the excellent ‘Microlite’ is anything to go by, expect to be hearing a lot more of them in the coming months.
And so, on to Esben and the Witch. The swirling dry ice lit by Victorian-era lamps on stage only served to accentuate the comparisons between the Brighton band’s identity and the works of Shelley and Poe; indeed their name comes from a dark Danish fairy tale. Mournful keys announced their arrival, and after a couple of songs it’s easy to see why people have compared them to Portishead – strong synths and guitar backed by a strong female vocalist. Vocalist Rachel Davies has been compared to Florence Welch, but it would be too easy to simply lump her in with the rest. She sounds like Florence without the love; angry, passionate, and with a breaking heart.
It was intriguing to see the band members swapping instruments at will throughout (accompanied by backing programming), although this is as much down to the band stating that they thermselves are still unclear on who will be playing what in the future. As such, there was variety in the performance, with Davies moving from percussion to bass and back, while Daniel Copeman attacked his guitar and the tom drum with an intense passion throughout – at one point he placed the drum perilously close to the edge of the stage, getting as close to the front row as possible without being in it. His intense performance contrasted with that of Thomas Fisher, although – a brief drum session aside – Fisher’s impressive guitar work and unimposing style allowed Davies and Copeman the space to let go.
‘Marching Song’ was an undoubted highlight; the song crescendos into a swarm of unsettling feedback, and hearing it it feels like peering into the workings of a troubled mind. ‘Souvenirs’ sounded like Robert Smith taking a bath (which is in no way a bad sound), dripping with watery synth and menace, while many of the songs were drenched in feedback, accentuating the sparse clarity of the drumbeat as Davies’ voice called out like a siren in the fog. At times, it sounded as though a plague of locusts had set upon the theatre, making for a challenging, yet ultimately rewarding experience.
After gaining some buzz with a slot on the BBC’s Sound of 2011 list, it’ll be intriguing to see what the wider public make of Esben and the Witch. While some may be turned off by the bleak, confrontational nature of the band, if you’re willing to listen to what they’ve got to say (and play), then Esben and the Witch may just let you into their beautifully horrible world.