Soap&Skin, No Support

Kevin Clynes 18/10/2010

A few months back mainstream radio was seemingly saturated with a glut of female solo acts desperate to foist their effervescent, 'outrageous' personalities on the public, acts who sang loud, dressed loud but ultimately had very little to say under the wacky facade. It would be improper to name names but I think we all realise I'm talking about the likes of Paloma Faith, Marina and the Diamonds, Florence Welch and the rest of their zany crew who, no matter how much they want us to know that they're unique, they're different, they're gifted...all of them simply pale in comparison to Anja Plaschg of Soap&Skin's truly unique presence and charisma.

Expanding her usual solo show to include a chamber ensemble, the sheer force of her personality and controlled chaos of her music makes it difficult to take your eyes off the twenty year old wunderkind.

The Union Chapel is the ideal venue for a show like this. One of London's more atmospheric venues, the converted church adds a sense of dark drama to the proceedings, and dark and dramatic is definitely Soap&Skin's forte. The show is more of a theatrical performance than a 'gig', the three-act structure helping to lend a sense of narrative to the operatic bedlam that is roaring from the speakers. Plaschg's music is difficult to categorise or to sum up using usual genre conventions, but the word 'apocalyptic' approximates the chaotic piano-choral tracks she performs tonight.

First though, a suitably disturbing introduction; the serrated sounds of pigs squealing over a pounding industrial drumbeat rings out through the Chapel as a swirling mist envelopes the crowd, as tense an opening as it is disturbing. It's almost jarring when Plaschg appears on stage; her diminutive and delicate stature belying the huge amounts of imagination and talent she exudes tonight and certainly at odds with the musical Armageddon happening around her. Although the first few tracks are relatively serene affairs usually featuring just the lady herself and a piano, the mid-section songs of the show are positively heavy, matching any metal band perhaps not in sheer bottom end crunch but undoubtedly in sheer audible impact. Her backing musicians effectively fill out the sound, but seldom do we get the sense of a personal connection between them and Plaschg. To be fair, it's hard to imagine who really could take her on in terms of sheer stage presence and they are more than up for the musical challenge a performance like this must provide. Their stoic professional expressions in the face of Plaschg's violent musical anarchy do add to the surreal atmosphere, though.

All the while Plaschg rarely acknowledges the crowd, and when she does it's nothing less than confrontational. Several times tonight the audience seems unsure whether what's taking place is really happening as it seems, or if it's all part of the show. One particularly bizarre incident occurs 'Spiracle' from her highly regarded 'Lovetune For Vacuum' LP, in which Plaschg abruptly stops playing a few minutes in and appears highly agitated. Leaping from her seat, she stares at the crowd who clap uncomfortably, not knowing whether the performance is over or there's some sort of problem, before she yells her disapproval and seemingly shares a several-minute-long conversation with a band mate. It's one bizarre moment of many that also includes the house lights completely illuminating the audience and plunging the stage into darkness while the show carries on. I'm not sure if this was a reflection on the relationship between audience and performer in a live environment or just an unsettling, dramatic stunt, but either way it's these parts of the show that really raise the performance up from a 'gig' and into a strange hybrid of narrative and music.
When she retakes her seat at the piano she launches back into the (already quite unnerving) song, she seems full of renewed vigour and proceeds to give one of the most intense performances of any kind of music I've seen anywhere.

Howling and wailing like a banshee, it's deeply affecting stuff especially coming from someone so relatively young, but it's the genuine lack of predictability and not just musical aptitude that most impresses tonight. If you long for artists that truly push musical boundaries, who offer something unique, challenging and honest in a sea of pretenders, Soap&Skin is an act you absolutely can't ignore.

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