It’s always nice to come away from a gig having learned something. Skipping through the cobbled streets of Salford after seeing Esben And The Witch, my lesson learned was “buy better headphones”. Y’see, having spent the last few weeks with their album, listening through my current, somewhat disappointing set of ear-nuzzlers, I had concluded that it was quite nice, in a spooky kind of way, with some definite highlights, but overall a bit vague, a bit flimsy, a bit lightweight.
But despite this, here was a chance to see a band willing to use a line as melodramatically brilliant as “A descent into savagery/Plummeting rapidly/They tried in vain/To shake this terrible hex” in a building as melodramatic as a church. It just seemed more appropriate to their lost souls demeanour than a sticky floored students’ union.
It should also be noted that churches often have great acoustics, perfect to project the choirs and the organs at the congregation. With large speakers resting around the pulpit, it was clear Rachel, Daniel and Thomas were going to give the rafters at least something of a rattling.
And then it hit. The opening bass drone of ‘Argyria’, a thunderous noise so loud it felt like my ribcage was about to shake itself clear out of my torso. I can count on one hand the number of gigs I’ve been to with bass that intense, and one of those, Fever Ray, was clearly an inspiration for much of Esben and the Witch’s electronic punch. Why had I not noticed this properly before? Note to self, get new headphones.
Any old bunch of eejits can fanny around onstage with mystical/portentous lyrics (heck I saw a band four days previously which I described at the time as Diet Esben), but what Esben and the Witch bring to the party is noise – beautiful sheets of noise – and stage presence. Turning their drum and cymbal into a centrepoint is a great move, it looked at times like they were a coven of (yup) witches gathered around a cauldron, ready to freak out future kings of Scotland and sundry other passersby. The percussive crescendo of ‘Lucia, At The Precipice’ (a highlight) drew all three members close around the drum, a shared moment when it seemed for an instant like we were all intruding on something we really shouldn’t have. Unless the whole audience is destined to rule Scotland someday, in which case it makes perfect sense.
What makes Esben an enjoyable experience is that they don’t lay it on thick. The three members looked like slightly hipster-ish indie kids, rather than anything fantastical or forced. The stage set-up, apart from the drum-cauldron, compromised of some glass heads and a rack of guitars. Sure, the venue itself helped with the ambiance, but most of the atmospheric gloom, the oppressive swirl, the feeling of being underwater, was coming from the music. Guitars howling, Rachel’s impressive and expressive voice, and that bass rumble, which came and went throughout the set, these were Esben and the Witches tools for dragging us into their world. It didn’t need to be laid on in a heavyhanded manner, it was just there.
Esben and the Witch don’t so much write songs as waves of music. At times they almost seem to be following the rules of dance music, building it up then dropping the beat, especially on set closer ‘Eumenides’. The sound of the gods of vengeance raining down on our heads? Oh yes, very much so. I was contrite in their presence. I repented. I will buy better headphones. I promise.