Soap and Skin - Union Chapel, Islington
In a hushed Union Chapel they took to the stage in darkness. The string and horn section stood for a silly spooky minute shining torches under their chins like kids at Halloween before taking their seats and being joined on stage by Anja Plaschg. Anja 'is' Soap and Skin but tonight she was joined by the ensemble and a backing vocalist. The sound throbbed its way up to loud, animal noises working up into a dance beat. It just had to be swine sounds I guess, that's to be expected given Anja's growing up on an Austrian pig farm.
I first saw her in another chapel, that time in Manchester, straight after the Lovetune For Vacuum album was released and became a cult hit. That first time, Anja did not look at the audience once, so that tonight I was staggered to see her not just occasionally do more than glance but even, once, smile. It was a little shy smile, but nevertheless it was there. The other thing that threw me was how developed the material sounded. I thought that at least half the set were new songs, and was slightly taken aback later to see a set list and find that all but four were on the album. They've come a long way then.
Her singular music veers between howl and operatic, part discordant classical, part dance break and tonight was nothing less than breathtaking drama. Anja gives so much, she wrings the music out of herself and it clearly costs. The point came where she sprang up from the piano, apparently startled, paced across the stage and then appeared in front of the seated audience. She stopped for some long moments to lean into and caress a speaker stack, then slowly turned and paced the front row. She stopped to look at people and they were apprehensive. At another point she left the music, and the ensemble, playing and disappeared to the back of the stage, half crawling and half crouching behind the pulpit steps. The first words she spoke were to introduce 'Vater' half way through the set: "This one is for my father". At this point, the silence was so heavy and portentous that the sound engineer unzipping his jacket sounded unnaturally loud.
'Spiracle' was performed with the stage in darkness and floodlights on us, and I wondered if, at this point, we the audience were the performance. In 'Marche Funebre' she stood in front of the crowd, her hands lit up and flailing like knife blades in the light. At some shuddering point of sudden stop, someone let out an involuntary yelp. It was that sort of night. When it ended as abruptly as it started, with Anya's hands over her mouth overcome with emotion, a good proportion of us appeared slightly amazed and grasping, finding it hard to explain what they had just seen. Rawness of emotion was articulated with such power as the music passed through Anja like an involuntary force.
Setlist: Brother of Sleep / Cynthia / Cry Wolf / Extinguish Me / Surrounded / Sleep / Vater / Turbine Womb / Thanatos / The Sun / Meltdown / Spiracle / Cradlesong / Mr.Gaunt PT 1000 / Fall Foliage / Marche Funebre / Born To Lose
Words by Mike Hughes, photos by Martyn Leung