Sixth Street in downtown Austin, Texas during South By Southwest can be a bit like the Las Vegas strip – an overwhelming sensory overload of sounds and sights all vying for your attention. A band screaming their lungs out here, a rapper shouting there, a guy trying to sell French Hip Hop CDs in the middle of the street. What’s much needed is a cool, quiet reprieve from the madness, and a short but mesmerizing set from Esben and The Witch was just that.
For those not familiar with the band, they are a fairly new three piece act from the UK that deals in sonic experimentation and icy atmospherics while the enigmatic lead singer wails about ancient diseases and other archaic ephemera with power and conviction—like a young Siouxsie Sioux. The way they layer electronic beats and blips with pounding drums and My Bloody Valentine-esque guitars makes for a potent combination.
With this band it’s all about slow build, setting the stage for the booming climax to come later. They wasted no time getting started, not even introducing themselves until after finishing their first song. It was impressive the way they shifted instruments on the fly, the singer playing bass and sometimes drums while one of the guitarists hurriedly programmed a sequencer of beats on the fly while the third member was a second guitarist, shared vocals and took turns beating on a drum. It may sound like all the multitasking could cause a scattered performance but they were surprisingly tight, transitioning seamlessly.
It was sometimes hard to tell one song from another aside from the pause for applause. Yet the way “Marching Song” pulls you in with its soldiering beat and wails about battles and fighting must be seen to be believed. This is a band that’s not big on melodies and hook-filled choruses and instead deals in “vibes,” transporting the listener to what feels like a post-apocalyptic wasteland beyond time.
Accomplishing such in a short set during the middle of the day is no small feat yet the evidence was undeniable when they ended the set with a tribal cacophony at the tail end of “Eumenides.” The expression on the faces of everyone was a bit overwhelmed, slightly blank, and unsure of what had just taken place. What’s certain is that no mere bar band, bashing out the same old rock song, had just graced the stage in this moment. Something completely different had drifted through the room, like a spirit that chills the very air around it.
By Jarad Matula