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Fuhrerbunker, Manchester (well, Salford, actually)Esben And The Witch
Fuhrerbunker, Manchester
Saturday February 9 2013


Ah, Manchester.

These days, Manchester has a reputation as a slick 'n' modern city, a hotbed of cutting-edge creative industries, all luxury condos and designer bars, linked by the humming efficiency of a sleek urban mass-transit system. That's how Manchester sells itself to the world.

Mind you, it's not all like that.  

A little way out of the city centre, just over the border with Salford (one of the first things you learn about Manchester is that large tracts of it aren't actually Manchester), all of a sudden urban decay closes around you like a vintage Joy Division photograph.

Walk this way: past the moonscape car park where the Boddington's brewery used to stand, up to Strangeways Prison (now renamed, prosaically, HM Prison Manchester). Turn left into a rubbish-strewn post-industrial wasteland. Pick your way round the back of the derelict Springfield & Overbridge Mill (a listed historic building, believe it or not, although being on the list obviously hasn't stopped the dereliction). Just before the road hits a dead end you'll find a nondescript white shed that was once a Volkswagen garage. That's it, in the photo above - the little white building to the left of the rubbish heaps.

This is the venue for tonight's gig: the Fuhrerbunker, a name which you may or may not regard as offensive. Some, at any rate, refer to it as simply the Bunker. But, given its interior labyrinth of unheated passageways, freezing breeze-block walls, and air of ramshackle half-built (or half-demolished, it's hard to tell which) gloom, either version of the name is appropriate. The bar is a trestle table selling cans out of cardboard boxes; the toilets are miniscule and pungent. There is a distinct lack of fire exit signs.

I'm not even sure if the place is legal, but tonight this stark cell hosts the Manchester date of the Esben and the Witch UK tour.

The Fuhrerbunker does not have anything so bourgeois as a stage. Instead, it's got a cage. Hefty timber studding encloses a small patch of floor, as if someone started to build a room within a room, but gave up before getting to the plasterboard stage. Inside this brutaliast container, we find our support band: Embers, who are unknown to me, although The Guardian reckons they're " visionary as the Verve and as massive as Muse." I'm not sure those reference points are any kind of recommendation, really. I mean, to me that suggests vaugely proggy stadium AOR, and I don't think we want to go there, thanks very much.


Fortunately, Embers are not so gormlessly grandiose as those comparisons suggest. Instead, they're a kind of forceful ambient outfit, all humming and shuddering, sweeps and swoops and outbreaks of percussive punctuation, but with plenty of guts to the sound - it's certainly not all filigree and delicacy. In fact, it's all a bit like a fuzzily-focused version of The Twilight Sad, to throw in a rather more appropriate comparison. Embers are certainly chanelling the Big Music. If the crush around the cage is any guide, they're pulling in the Big Audience, too.

Esben and the WitchEsben and the Witch are also not exactly renowned for their minimalist approach. But tonight, at least, they look slightly more conventional than they did when I last saw them, on their debut album go-around.

Now, with a new album out and much touring under their belts, the Esbens (or should we call them the Witches?) have shaken down into something a bit more like a rock band: guitar, bass, drums, vocals.

Just to underline this shift, they've now got a full drum kit, rather than the lone floor-tom that originally provided the beat.

However, the 273 miles of cabling that connect the bands instruments, effects, and assorted black boxes is very much still present and correct. The floor of the Fuhrerbunker cage looks like an explosion in a spaghetti factory once Esben and the Witch have connected all their wires.

Out of all this hardware comes the sound: that billowing audio fogbank, dense and almost transcendent, but pricked with detail, too. The band are self-effacing amid the sonic swirl. Vocalist Rachel Davies parts the curtain of her hair to gaze quizzically though the bars of the cage; the lads keep their heads down in the approved muso fashion.

Esben and the Witch'Marching Song' - an oldie now, but still Esben and the Witch's signature song - is a battery of drums and drama, while of the new songs 'Deathwaltz' nudges the band into Cocteau Twins-ish territory, with its plaintive vocal and keening synth.

The Cocteau Twins, I suppose, loom large over any band that plays it a bit ethereal, a bit atmospheric, and Esben and the Witch - who, it must be said, are very atmospheric - don't entirely escape the Cocteaus' long shadow.

They're at their best when they push things right up to the ragged edge, when they allow misshapes to emerge from that audio fog.

That's when it all make the most sense: when the music lends an air of dystopian romance to this stark location.

Esben and the Witch don't quite manage to make the Bunker look beautiful, but they fill it with something fuzzily elegant tonight.


Esben And The Witch: Website | Facebook

Embers: Website | Facebook

For more photos from this gig, find Esben And The Witch by name here.

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