The Southbank Centre’s Ether Festival prides itself on bringing together innovative and challenging musicians for a month-long residency. This year’s line up-is typically eclectic and, what it lacks in coherency, it makes up for in ambition. Any line up-which includes ‘The Music of John Cage’ and Mount Kimbie is worth a look. Pretentious? Arguably, but its intentions are noble, and for that it should be respected.
The combination of Soap&Skin and Ghostpoet is a perfect example. Described as ‘two of Europe’s fastest rising stars’, the double bill unites two musicians who couldn’t be more different. One from Austria, the other from Tooting, this show in the esteemed Royal Festival Hall feels like a defining moment for both musicians. Taking your seats for a prompt start at 7.30 already feels odd. As the lights go down, leaving the stage in complete darkness, and the harsh, industrial opening of Deathmental fills the room, it becomes quickly obvious that Anna Plaschg, the Austrian singer behind Soap&Skin, relishes the surreality and theatricality of the occasion. Dressed in black and cloaked in darkness almost throughout, Plaschg is a revelation. What could have been a night to overwhelm such a young performer – she’s only 22 – feels like the venue she was born to play. Communicating only in nods and short bows, Plaschg is able to intrigue and captivate the audience and it is immediately clear that she is not only a sensational singer but a virtuosic performer.
Much of the set consists just of Plaschg and the piano, with a string quintet and backing singer adding layers and depth sparingly. From the hushed intimacy of Cynthia to the enormous and tumultuous climax of Marche Funebre, what is painfully clear is how much these songs mean to her. She sings from her heart; each word is painful to articulate yet has to be sung. When the astonishing Vator reaches its despairing climax, Plaschg howls a wordless scream. Such is the depth of feeling conveyed in the music, simple language is left behind.
Soap&Skin is not for everyone. There’s some shuffling in the audience and during one instrumental number, a man whispers to his friend: “She’s a bit weird”. She does take herself very seriously and the dramatic lighting is gloriously over the top, but it completely works. Like all the best musical performances, Soap&Skin has the potential to remind you what a voice and a piano can achieve, how music can help you understand the world in a way that no other medium can; she alternates between singing, playing, conducting the string quartet and throwing herself around the stage in time to the rhythm. After her last song, a frenzied cover of Robert Johnson’s Me and the Devil Blues, Plaschg walks off stage without a word. And she’s gone, leaving us breathless and thrilled.
But it’s only 9pm and the night is not yet over. However, as Ether often threatens to do, we move not so much from the sublime to the ridiculous, as from the sublime to the mediocre. The programme notes tell us Ghostpoet will be performing new tracks from his ‘hotly anticipated new album’. It’s uncertain as to who it is that’s so very excited, or indeed whether anyone would actually be able to name more than one song from his debut album Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam. Not only does it seem astonishing that anyone still believes a Mercury Prize nomination is an accurate reflection of ability and success, but placing Ghostpoet after the theatricality and virtuosity of Soap&Skin provides a juxtaposition that is almost cruel.
It is not overly harsh to describe Ghostpoet as a pinnacle of musical mediocrity. Combining bland electronic, synthesised beats over his deep-voiced, laidback delivery Ghostpoet provides the very worst type of rap music. Repeating words ad nauseam doesn’t constitute a rhyme and long words don’t reflect profundity and genius. The single, Liiines, receives a rapturous welcome, as do the raft of new songs. In fact, it seems that the entirety of Ghospoet’s fanbase are in attendance as the crowd welcome his every utterance. But there is an emptiness to his performance; a hole where lyrical dexterity should be, a void the shape of a memorable tune. While Death Grips,Frank Ocean and How To Dress Well reinvent intellectual,thought provoking hip hop and R&B, Ghostpoet’s just standing still. Musical innovation is taking place on both sides of the Atlantic but it won’t be found on his new LP.
From dizzying highs to depressing lows, Ether Festival promises to challenge us, surprise us and make us think. From the evidence of this evening, 2012 has been a vintage year. And whilst subjectivity will make any promise of innovation open to failure and ridicule, if you haven’t already, buy Soap&Skin’s latest album – she’s one artist at least, who’s looking to the future.