Jittery, nervous and in need of a whisky, the feelings instilled at the end of a Soap&Skin gig are much like those at the end of a horror film. Sitting on the edge of the Union Chapel’s pews while being pummelled mercilessly by Anja Plaschg’s fear-infused music, and feeling exposed by the perfectly-executed lighting, people edge towards the exit, having experienced the shock and awe her beguiling show creates.
What came before was an extended version of the last big gig she played in London, almost a year to the day later. Most of the same elements remain in place. She doesn’t add much in the way of new material to that appearing on last year’s minor-key masterpiece Lovetune For Vacuum, and songs including Surrounded, Meltdown and Cradlesong, which have all been in the public sphere for some time. These are songs that often seem accessible in their composition, but her performance takes them to a different level. She still trawls around the audience seemingly in desperate search of something during her industrial instrumental piece.
However, the relocation of the 20-year-old Austrian’s world to this magnificent candle-lit domed London venue and the employment of a six-piece ensemble (she usually appears alone) prove to be the final pieces needed to complete her fantastical gothic jigsaw.
The addition of a string quartet, a trumpet player and a female backing singer to harmonise with Plaschg’s vocals bolster and add emotional depth to her piano playing. With them in place, she limits her pre-programmed instrumentation to the sound effects that undercut her heartstring-manipulating chord progressions. Instrumental Turbine Womb stands out as a clear example, its sweet sadness undercut by the signal of a baby crying, the rough jagged edges of a mysterious clicking and the background unexplained noise of birdsong and wailing.
Her live show remains something utterly compelling and removed from pretty much anything else. Blurring the lines between contemporary music, classical music and theatre, it’s impossible to tell exactly who Plaschg is. Her voice is powerful and sorrowful in its slightly flat tone. Her performance is bare, but she limits her engagement with her audience to a dedication of a song sung in German to her father. Apart from that, she is an actress playing a part in a musical play. Or is she? You leave the venue shaken and wondering if she really did have a two-minute breakdown during Spiracle, once again standing out as the nerve-shredding heart of the gig, which found her leaving her piano before returning to try again. Is she really this shy, overwrought person or is it all an elaborate exercise in character?
It is all so unbearably intense that the applause between songs almost feels inappropriate for breaking the continuity. Soap&Skin’s live show may leave you traumatised, but in a good way. It surely ranks as one of the most overwhelming and memorable live music performances of the year.