Into the Pit: 182: Teeth of the Sea + Esben and the Witch – The Lexington N1 – 07-October 2013

The Lexington is one of those gig venues that I’m seeming to revisit more and more. This is a good thing – a good-sized venue, great acoustics, good booze, and it’s easy to get to. Not to mention a habit of putting on great bands time and again. Although judging on the few questions I heard while at the downstairs bar on Monday night, I don’t think I’m going to stand a chance of winning the Rough Trade music quiz anytime soon.

Still, I was there for the bands on Monday, and an interesting mix it was too. This was the first night of a short UK tour involving all three bands, one of which I’d not heard before, one I’d heard a lot about (but not heard), and one I was already onside with.

First up were Thought Forms, a three-piece who invoked a number of other bands during their set. Broadly it struck me as a halfway house between shoegaze and stoner or psychedelic rock, with appropriately sophoric vocals – my note at the time was “music that broadly sounded like it was recorded horizontally”. Something I think you can take both ways in this context. To my ears, there was the harder grooves of Pelican here, the languid, psyched peaks of (early) The Verve, and of course the wall-of-guitars influence of My Bloody Valentine. Not bad, all told, but one of those bands that probably work better in the live environment for me.

A number of my friends, it turns out, have been raving about Esben and the Witch of late and I’d kinda missed it. Looking them up prior to the show suggested a “gothic pop” element to their sound (admittedly a catch-all used in the press of late for all kinds of unrelated artists who might have a darker tinge to their sound), but live that was rather brushed away by a thunderous mix. Mainly this is down to an astounding drummer who absolutely pummels his skins, and aided by electronics and samples (that he also controls), there is a monstrous bottom end to their sound. The neo-tribal drumming at points offers a bedrock to squalling guitars and vocalist Rachel Davies’ soothing voice that almost floats through some of the songs. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this as much as I did, the way the set flowed just sucked me into going along for the ride, and there was a tinge of disappointment when they left the stage.

Teeth of the Sea setlist

You’re Mercury
Black Strategy

Part 1 on YouTube
Part 2 on YouTube

Any sense of disappointment, however, was quickly dispelled by what followed. I’d – mystifyingly, now I look back – totally missed the previous buzz about Teeth of the Sea until a friend proclaimed them to be “one of the best live bands in existence” in the summer. And seeing as I trust her judgement on such things, I thought it prudent to check out the band’s music so far, and it was certainly interesting. Teeth of the Sea are, I guess, psychedelic-electronic-post-rock, if you want a handle to put on them, but frankly they sound like no-one else on record, and live they take this even further.

New album MASTER (so good it deserves it’s title in capital letters) was out the same day, although it had been streamed over previous weeks online (officially, natch) so I, like many other people in the crowd, were clearly familiar with the new material. The new material dominated the set, too. The Kraftwerkian (think the deep, synthesised tones from Radioactivity) vocals of intro Leder led us into the gradual build of Reaper, and it was here where it first became apparent just how hard this band work onstage. A stand-up drummer dominates the centre of the stage, with a bandmate controlling a multitude of synths and samplers on one side (and a guitar), a guitarist/trumpet player the other side, and then in the shadows the fourth member, behind another bank of synths and playing a flying-V. Confidently exchanging instruments mid-song – and more than once in each of their lengthy songs is not unusual – every moment of this show demonstrated an awesomely tight, in-tune band who are in absolute mastery of the technology they are using.

The thing is, this would be nothing without the astounding music that they create as a result. They hit rhythmic peaks that had the crowd whooping like they were at a rave, and then just kept on going higher, they manage to tease out more contemplative sections without ever once losing the crowd, while the use of the trumpet adds a distinctly different dimension to any other band that could possibly be considered working within the same realms. The latter was shown best during You’re Mercury, where as the beats ominously build and build and build, the trumpet wails mournfully above the fray, while being manipulated and looped by another bandmate…before the dam finally bursts and it takes a new, even more thrilling shape.

Incredibly it got even better. New album highlight Black Strategy (I featured it last week in Tuesday Ten: 185) surges forward on a malevolent, motorik groove that threatens on a number of occasions to absolutely explode, instead choosing relative restraint and layering of complex electronics and synths for the most part, until everything finally comes together…and the climactic maelstrom absolutely slays. Flowing that into A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. – with the addition of that Kraftwerkian voice repeating the title over-and-over, in case we’d missed what was coming – was a masterstroke. Live it is transformed into a trance-rock epic with an epic, spacey guitar solo, a song so good I never wanted it to end.

But end it must, and those spaced-out, proggy overtones in the ToTS sound really came out during the closing Responder, fifteen minutes or so of it. Shoehorning all of their disparate influences and sounds into one (lengthy) track was perhaps a big ask, but they’ve managed it, and while I’m not as bowled over with the recorded version as everyone else seems to be, live it has a brilliance that it utterly undeniable, even if you have to stick with it for the payoff – including a scorched-earth, drilling noise section at the heart of the track that may be a bit much for many, before a thumping, almost industrial rhythm arises from the eventual white noise.

That is perhaps the crux of this band, though. They are not a band to casually listen to – you need to immerse yourself in the sound, and more importantly experience them live. The word “experience” is key here, too – live they are a feast of the senses, not only sounding amazing but with visuals that nail exactly the feel of the music, and it was one of those rare moments where I lost track of time, entirely unaware until when it finished just how long they’d been onstage. As it happened they had played for just forty-five minutes.

Not for everyone, perhaps. No, but perhaps music like this is a niche pursuit, and it’s maybe better that it remains this way. But for those of you feeling adventurous, and wanting something more thrilling than you’ve heard of late, you should start here. You won’t regret it.

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