“No, sorry, it’s sold out” is a phrase cyclically repeated in the background as I venture to Shoreditch’s XOYO. Completely dark inside, the emergency exit light is the only guide to sanity as people crowd together to see the phenomena that is Esben and the Witch.
The scene was already set out on stage: a Victorian lamp decorates the corner, three glass heads sit on a table at the back and on the floor lies a cloth covered soft-beater splattered in a blood-like substance. Guitarist Daniel Copeman is first onstage – his face obscured by hair, staggering around in a pair of black socks – he begins to modify the ominous sounds to something more magical. Vocalist Rachel Davies then appears, together with Tom Fisher, who stares out into the audience through his dishevelled-professor like glasses. With no introduction, they launch straight into opening song: ‘Argyria’.
Slowly, hoards of hypnotised camera men creep to the front, like a cult would to a dark, gothic warrior claiming to be their leader. People follow, desperately trying to get as close to the stage as possible, as one by one, they become enchanted by the raw electronic powers and dark, gothic laments. For the cult followers and Esben virgins, the very notion of playing an opening track about a medical condition that turns people a silvery-blue, is an abhorrence in itself, but the audience warm to it, driven by the austerity of the different sounds and the individuality of the song’s theme.
Tracks evolve alongside the band’s energy. ‘Lucia, At The Precipe’, definitive of Esben’s tribal-minimalist electro, sees each band member bowing in unison with the beat. As the various pedal-driven guitars grow in volume, the atmosphere on stage was akin to a scene from the darkest chambers of a mental asylum. Copeman topples all over the stage, hair flying outwards in all directions as he conjures more sounds from his instruments. The stage is shrouded in a misty green light while Davies’ beguiling voice captures each person’s thoughts, leaving them in a bedazzled-but-satisfied state of mind. “This is the biggest show we’ve done yet”, quips Davies in her deep comforting voice, before launching straight into the next song.
The band’s occultism isn’t something that ends there. Closing track ‘Eumenides’ prompts the band’s gathering around the drums as they pound at it with bloody rag covered sticks. If anything, this is where their cult-seeking attention is explicit: such a vision recalls Macbeth’s witches around their cauldron.
A final unified hit brings everything to close and Esben abandon the stage one by one. Copeman is the last to leave, rubbing the mic against the main speaker to create a shroud of distorted feedback to accompany his exit.
Like the foreboding Danish fairy tale that gave them their name, Esben’s music is convoluted and misunderstood – yet I’m yearning for more.