Into the infamous cage clambers another band, ready to take on the challenge that Salford’s Fuhrer Bunker brings. With faces eerily peering upon them between the wooden slats, Rachel Davies, Thomas Fisher and Daniel Copeman aka Brighton’s ESBEN AND THE WITCH follow Manchester band EMBERS (with an ever-increasing membership, now kitted out with violin-player who really “makes” the sound) and their storming support set. With the Esben/Embers combination, the show is sold out with online clattering for spare tickets.
It’s not difficult for tensions to naturally rise in this tight-capacity venue – it’s chilly and dark, and the looming cage is creepy to say the least. When you throw Esben into the mix, then we’re talking ultra-spooky. Surprisingly, the trio are well-lit (they were expected to play in near-pitch black conditions) and shy singer Rachel seems oddly at home in the claustrophobic atmosphere: “This is a pretty crazy venue…” she says, smiling wryly as if she’s secretly loving every moment.
Performing numbers largely off their most recent album “Wash the Sins Not Only the Face,” the band leap seamlessly from track to track formulating a treat for the senses, transporting us within seconds from the ethereal and divine to the aggressive and manic – and then back again. Rachel masterfully embodies both angel and devil on this makeshift stage.
Some of the new tracks are sublime in their instrumental balance: “Slow Wave” and “When the Head Splits” both successfully proving that Esben have more than heart-wrenching gothic sounds to offer, and that this is a band now well on the brink of expressing its full range of versatility. Rachel’s vocals complement every variation that the instrumentals can throw at her. “Yellow Wood” is a good example of how this band transitions from low-key to anthemic near-ecstasy, Rachel’s vocals demonstrating range and resonating a type of nostalgia at points, reminiscent of some well-respected singers of the past – a more delicate version of All About Eve’s Julianne Regan, as one member of the crowd points out, or in my mind the Cocteau Twins. “Despair” allows them to release more of their crazed darker sounds, and by the time the distinctive intro to “Deathwaltz” drowns the bunker, we’re reminded that this band has some of the best track intros going.
“Deathwaltz” is one of those songs that if you fall in love with it, you will have it endlessly on loop. It embodies all the intensity and soulfulness of this band. There’s a rawness yet carefully crafted balance in this track, and hand on heart the band nailed the live version, and then some. The crescendo towards the end is another example of this rousing ecstatic sound that Esben have become so very good at. Of course, they close with the haunting “Smashed to Pieces in the Still of the Night” and its crashing ending, leaving the crowds wanting more.
This is a band who will not let you down, live – they will wilfully toss your emotions around, the guitar riffs will make you tremble, the relentless drumbeats will cut you to the core, and Rachel will deliver the vocals so that you leave the building feeling more than just a little spooked. My only wish now is that Esben finally get the grand recognition that they deserve – that they are a band who are representative of great musicianship, ever-humble in their approach, and truly iconic.