Come On Die Young

In a manner that nods appreciatively towards American fellow travellers like [a]Lambchop[/a] and [a]Will Oldham[/a], their songs are almost too good to need choruses.

Things don’t always go smoothly. [a]Witness[/a] shuffle listlessly around the stage. Technical problems, evidently.

“We’re ready now,” announces singer Gerard Starkie. Machinery coughs behind him, his bandmates let out a sigh of despair. Starkie does a quick turn before returning to the mic.

“No, we’re not.”

Still, if you’ve waited for over a decade to have a proper pop career, a few more minutes of minor embarrassment as knobs are tweaked and cables are manhandled isn’t going to do any lasting harm. Indeed, when [a]Witness[/a] eventually do get the go-ahead, that extra anticipation almost makes the experience more rewarding, more heart-rending and more intense.

Intensity is the name of the game, you see, but not in any of the ways that you’d usually imagine. Their songs are not as musically dense as Radiohead or Mansun, or as soaked in vocal theatrics as the Manics or Placebo. Theirs is a quiet, seething unease, blessed with moments of beauty, jarring dissonance and, fair enough, a bit of unwanted feedback. Then again, it’s a sure sign you’re on to a good thing when even your mistakes sound deliberate.

So how does it work? In mysterious ways. There are little flicks of piano, the odd smidgen of xylophone and, from Ray Chan, some of the most resolutely anti-guitar guitar playing you’ll ever hear. He doesn’t strum and he doesn’t pluck and yet, with the barest of caresses, manages to immerse [a]Witness[/a]’ plaintive songs in the kind of noodle-free atmospherics that their famous mentor, Nick McCabe, would give his platinum discs for.

In a manner that nods appreciatively towards American fellow travellers like Lambchop and Will Oldham, their songs are almost too good to need choruses. If you can pick one out from the minimalist bliss of recent single ‘Scars’ then you must have the ears of a retriever. Last year’s debut, ‘Quarantine’, manages to pull off the same magical trick of showing you that there’s more to great pop than lighter-waving epiphanies at the end of every verse. That they manage to better both of these songs with ‘Hijacker’, a blurred ballad which shows their effortless lightness of touch and mastery of spindly guitar chicanery, is as startling as it is life-enrichingly brilliant.

[a]Witness[/a], then: been there, seen that and doing it