Soap & Skin @ Royal Festival Hall, London 6 Oct
Royal Festival Hall fills slowly. It has the proportions of a chalk quarry, and a clarity of acoustics found within a bell. Anja Plaschg is appearing here tonight with her Soap&Skin Ensemble as part of the Southbank Centre’s Ether programme. Her music is known for its punishing layers of deeply techno bass and sparse piano arrangements. Could it fill this hall? Some of the people here have come to see the second artist tonight, Ghostpoet. The girls are can tell this by the casual way some punters check their phones during the first half of Soap&Skin’s performance, or slink out to the bar. By the second half, however, Soap&Skin have them. Everyone shivers as goosebumps rise in reaction to the furious performance onstage.
Considering that the sound in here tonight is so clear that you can hear each intake of breath on-stage, Soap&Skin’s set is slow to build. First song, ‘Deathmental’, is as pugilistic as ever. The stage is in darkness apart from spotlights flashing in and out. A darkened figure of Plaschg is occasionally lit by these explosive searchlights. This doesn’t move the audience. It’s not as impactful, somehow, as it would have been in a smaller, less well-lit and cosy venue. Plaschg’s ensemble gradually assemble on-stage. She is joined for ‘Cradlesong’ by her sister’s backing vocals and then by the full Ensemble for ‘Big Hand Nails Down’.
The Ensemble have four string instruments, and one horn player. They add impossibly textured melancholy to Plaschg’s piano and laptop. In ‘Pray’ the combination of the horn and Anja screaming is as creepy as it is overwhelming. Plaschg’s self awareness dominates the performance: she makes an art of shuffling and shaking her head. Somehow her theatricality translates as sincerity. There are songs here that, if staged by the X Factor or The Voice, could have borne pyrotechnics but Plaschg makes do with red spotlights and tense shuddering. By her final songs, the audience are stuck to their seats like pinned butterflies. ‘Vater’ is savagely emotional and the final song, a cover of Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ is the closure both the band and the audience need. Plaschg and her ensemble leave the stage, and the audience shiver out into the lighted corridors of London’s Southbank Centre. The girls are do not envy Ghostpoet, who must follow Soap&Skin. He’ll have to reconstruct us all.
What do you think of Soap & Skin’s theatrics? Does it add or subtract from her music?