Rote Fabrik, Zurich, Switzerland
21st February 2013
Esben and the Witch & Thought Forms
With an icy wind and snow flurries curling in gusts around the twists and turns of former factory Rote Fabrik, it was almost as if Brighton trio ESBEN AND THE WITCH had somehow fixed the weather and set the scene to perfectly match their particular glacial sound. Some bands are simply not meant to be seen in a muddy field, in daylight, so this return to play live in Zurich on such a night must have put a wry smile on the collective faces of the band. If, indeed, smiles are allowed.
Opening act THOUGHT FORMS appeared oblivious both to the chill outside and the sparse audience. Facing each other rather than the room, the slow pace and build up to most of their material felt exclusive, more akin to viewing a rehearsal than a gig. The music itself is intriguing. At times conjuring images of a Cairo sunrise, or being lost in a private world of twilight back alleys and half glimpsed mountain vistas, it is patient and expansive. These almost mystical passages then merging into powerful drone rock, dirges with not insubstantial power very reminiscent of MOGWAI, SONIC YOUTH and SWANS. Indeed at times, the vocals, lost in the sonic maelstrom, sounded much like the latter bands singer, Michael Gira. A false start to one song and some nervous laughter, plus a habit of tuning the guitars before a song has actually ended didn't detract too much from a solid enough performance, and the audience reaction to them was a warm one.
Thankfully, by the time ESBEN AND THE WITCH grace the stage, the great and the good of Zurich have arrived, including Michael Sele of Swiss dark rock band THE BEAUTY OF GEMINA, and the venue has filled up nicely. It's an impressive stage, spacious but without losing its protagonists, and from the opening few bars of 'Iceland Spar', it's clear the sound quality is superb. Touring new album 'Wash The Sins Not Only The Face', it's appropriate that the band give space to the new songs, and 'Slow Wave' perfectly captures this new sound. Its haunting vocal, hanging seductively around a simple guitar cascade, is effortlessly beautiful. It's as if some of the iciness present previously has thawed, allowing more texture and melody into the songs. A stunning start, and the band appear calm and relaxed, assured and clearly confident with the new material. 'Marching Song' is played next, a familiar favourite from debut album ‘Violet Cries’. I saw this performed over a year ago and it was harsh and abrasive, dynamic and edgy. Tonight, all those elements are still in place, but the song has matured and grown in stature, the playing much less frantic. It's as if the need to prove the importance of the song in a live setting has been replaced with the knowledge that it will speak for itself, the previous histrionics not needed. The crowd especially appreciate its inclusion, even those who are perhaps not too familiar with the bands back catalogue.
With each song, the balance in the set becomes apparent. Swirling elegies and breathy vocals give way to an elegant and glorious racket, where the three figures on stage seem to be impossibly responsible for the sheer energy and volume they create. Indeed, it would be no surprise if tonight the band had ignored Swiss regulation decibel levels, luminous earplugs seen everywhere, bobbing up and down in the semi darkness in front of the stage. When they play loud, these songs really do envelop you, and it's wonderful to be a part of it. A trio of new songs follows, and this seems to be where the band really hit their stride. 'Despair' manages to sound fragile and powerful all at once as its programmed beat canters along impatiently behind the melody, it's thunderous in its chorus and a definite crowd pleaser. This is followed by 'Yellow Wood' all swirling Cocteau Twins soundscapes, and the lighting show now, which has been superb throughout, is something to behold. Completing the trio is recent single 'Deathwaltz', which is the nearest to a pop song ESBEN AND THE WITCH have written. It's busy and trippy, slightly reminiscent of ALL ABOUT EVE. Again it is played with a quiet assurance, knowing the strength of the song and revelling in the joy of playing it.
The night draws to a close with two more songs from the new album. 'The Fall of Glorieta Mountain' is by far the highlight of the night. Delicate and spidery, the band face one another in a collective huddle as it unfolds. It's like eavesdropping on a most private and intimate conversation. As Rachel Davies intones the refrain 'Is that an answer, or is this an echo', the music hovering and shimmering gently behind, it is absolutely gorgeous. At one point only the voice can be heard, a few bars of painful melancholy that leave the audience hushed and breathless. When the song ends, you just want to cry. It's that good. However, final song ‘Smashed To Pieces In The Still Of The Night’ is perhaps the definitive ESBEN sound, and it's a fitting climax. Slow to build and heavy on atmospherics, once it hits its stride it is thunderous and epic. There's a menace at work beneath its skin, and after more than five minutes of tantalising breaks and false crescendos it finally explodes fully into life. Huge, pounding drums and distorted bass and guitar lift this to somewhere frighteningly high before crashing it all down, smashed to pieces indeed, and leaving no doubt as to the raw power that lurks within the beauty of many of these songs. And then they are gone. Perhaps they vanish into the icy wind and snow flurries still twisting and turning around Rote Fabrik. Perhaps. But I hope they are simply backstage, allowing themselves a wry smile or two, safe in the knowledge that tonight, they played something truly special that left no one present untouched by the sheer beauty of it all.
01. Iceland Spar
02. Slow Wave
03. Marching Song
05. When The Head Splits
08. Yellow Wood
10. The Fall Of Glorieta Mountain
11. Smashed To Pieces In The Still Of The Night
Photographs by Regi