Soap&Skin, the alias of Anja Plaschg, was recently asked by Zotter, chocolatiers from her native Austria, to create her own chocolate. What did she create? Blue cornflowers and black sesame resting on a blanket of dark chocolate and, in the centre, a pink beetroot ganache with pig’s blood.
This somewhat bizarre concoction seems to perfectly capture her personality and sense of dark experimentation. It may go some way to explaining what is happening on this new mini-album, Narrow. Entirely self-played and produced, this is a disorientating, dark and rich piece of work. Across the nine songs are twisted and affecting electro tracks mixed with achingly personal piano songs. To continue the painful ‘pig’s blood chocolate’ metaphor, this might not to be to everyone’s taste, but those who do like it will devour it.
Though still only 21, it’s not like Soap&Skin is an unknown entity. Her 2009 debut album Lovetune For Vacuum charted across Europe. It was an album that put her on the map. However, her father died suddenly of a stroke in July 2009, and this album seems to be a response to that tragic event. Indeed, opener Vater meets it head on. It’s a raw and powerful start. The track is a piece of emotional outpouring, building from a elegant, taut opening through to an cathartic crescendo as the piano gets faster and more intense and vocals get stronger and more impassioned. Though sung in German, the emotion of the song transcends any language barrier.
After the storm comes the relative calm of Voyage Voyage, a cover of – of course – Desireless‘ discopop smash. A huge song throughout Europe, she takes the original ’80s dance anthem and transforms it into an intimate piece, where touching and elegant piano meets her trembling and soaring voice. The dark lullabies are briefly interrupted by the sonic assault of Deathmental, which does exactly as its name suggests, with its stabs of synth and electronic savagery. Yet it is the bleak, gloom-laden beauty of Anja and her piano that dominate this album.
It finds warmth in tragedy despite the heaviness of subject matter that could have been overwhelming. There’s a fragility in her voice and elegant majesty in the piano playing that makes this album such a thing of stark beauty. First single Wonder is a perfect example of this. An otherworldly ballad that’s sad yet hopeful, it’s built on a bed of multi-tracked harmonies and sweeping strings, while Boat Turns Toward The Port begins with what sounds like an old typewriter or the ticking of a clock before building into a torch song that sounds like Florence And The Machine if Florence understood what subtlety was.
The journey ends with the dramatic farewell of Big Hand Nails Down. With its banshee screams and pounding percussion, this is close to Björk territory. Big, pounding and forceful, it shows her coming out of the other side, stronger and wiser. As young as she is, Plaschg certainly seems to have a clear and singular vision for the art she wants to create. Narrow takes harrowing experiences and pain and transforms them into beautifully cathartic lullabies. At once vulnerable and ferociously confident, it shows an artist who understands what it means to mean something.