Live Review: Esben And The Witch

Madame JoJo's, London Tuesday, January 5

The mercury might be heading towards zero and the radio crackling with dire warnings of apocalyptic snowfall, but in the heart of Soho the pimps and dealers are still plying their wares. On the door of Madame JoJo’s, two bouncers are talking about a festive altercation: “Five fights mate, over there. Well, more like one; it just went on…”

Inside this dull basement room, away from the tawdry neon selling sex and streets still encrusted with New Year’s blood and vomit, [a]Esben And The Witch[/a] create their own world. An already startlingly accomplished trio, they look under stones and into musty cupboards to find inspiration in subjects that the fibreoptic-flash-led society that gruesomely indulges itself in the Soho streets otherwise leaves behind.

They open with ‘Argyria’, a track named for the silver oxide poisoning that once turned the faces of workers a strange, shiny grey.
The subject matter is startling enough, but that would be nothing without what powers it. The beats are all dubstep paranoia, as if the band had picked them up passing through Croydon on nocturnal rail journeys from the capital to their Brighton home. Yet it’s shrouded in a comforting waterfall of meltwater fizzing guitar. And then there’s singer Rachel Davies, who looks as if she’s about to take tea with Virginia Woolf, and sounds like PJ Harvey when she stopped screaming and started hymning the English landscape, or a Siouxsie Sioux who wisely left the vamp eyeliner on the dresser.

You get the impression that Davies is more likely to write an ode to the old water pump that sits around the corner in Broadwick Street – which, when it was discovered to be the source of a cholera epidemic, led to the disease’s eradication – than yet another weary ditty bemoaning the cruel inattentions of a mere boy. In the same way, while Tom Fisher and Daniel Copeman resemble handsome scriveners down on their luck in some smoky ’20s boozer, ‘Lucia, At The Precipice’ isn’t a poem they’ve pathetically dribbled to win the attentions of a rapacious flapper. Instead, their most recent single is about the depressive daughter of James Joyce, who ended her days by her own hand. All three members crowd around a floor tom, hammering away with the intensity of Liars before suddenly parting, Davies singing a melody that twists the song away to somewhere else – perhaps a Balearic island conquered by [a]Joy Orbison[/a] next summer.

When Esben And The Witch do eventually sing of love, they express it more intelligently than most: ‘Skeleton Swoon’ captures that first moment of connection, expressed as the rattling of dry bones. Seeing this band live is like delving into some eccentric’s personal musical museum, part post-rock, but cleansed of the musty smell of geeky boys’ rooms. It’s driven by minimal electronica and austere rhythms; Radiohead without the mithering, goth stripped of unnecessary melodrama.

They end with ‘Eumenides’, a piece in three parts (like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Paranoid Android’ before it) that links Francis Bacon and Greek myth. In lesser hands, such ambition could become mired in pretension, or be so convoluted and arch as to lack emotion, but that’s never the case here. Fairy tales – and Esben And The Witch are named after one – contain light and darkness, warnings and hope, a lesson for real life in something magical. Outside, Soho isn’t covered in some twee blanket of white, and the denizens of this part of London puke and piss and belch into a soggy, desultory snow shower. But tonight, we saw Esben And The Witch writing the first drafts of a story that, like the very best, will excite our imaginations for quite some time to come.

Luke Turner

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