It’s an unhinged vulnerability combined with theatricality that makes a performance by Soap & Skin equal parts immersing and supremely uncomfortable. For all its compositional density –spread across an instrumental ensemble, grand piano and laptop –it’s the brooding figure and robust voice of 23-year-old performer Anja Palschg that shakes the Southbank Centre’s Royal Albert Festival Hall to its core.
Appearing in an oddly paired double-bill with affable London emcee and producer Ghostpoet, the Austrian enigma is the underdog of the night’s Ether Festival presentation, merely by virtue of her location. Relatively unknown in the UK but a charting artist at home, it’s difficult to see how a performer as dark and exposed as Palschg could rise to stardom with these merciless expressions of pain and torment, straddling classical piano and industrial electronica. Yet in the flesh, there’s an unmistakable magnetism to the black-cad siren as she bends over her keyboard under cover of her fiery red hair, or jerks to the crushing symphony of strings and a backing track.
As the occasional leave-giving audience member attests to tonight, Palschg’s is an intensity someone from the British Isles might struggle to come to terms with. But, given she’s of the cultural sensibility that produced Michael Haneke, there’s no doubting the taut, violent beauty of Soap & Skin. In fact, Palschg appears in Haneke protégé Sebastian Meise’s film Stillleben –the theme song for which, a cover of French europop artist Desireless’ ‘Voyage, Voyage’, makes a welcome appearance to counteract the clamorous onslaught of ‘Marche Funèbre’ –and it’s a setting well-suited to the exposed, though inscrutable, stage persona in front of us. Having already played Nico in a play based around the German singer and model, the sense of this performance being part of her recurring role of ‘broken loveliness’ is shattered by the taut and disconcerting glimpse into Palschg’s own emotional instability; particularly as she sings and gestures maniacally during a stint of standing centre-stage –part conductor, part raving mad.
For anyone who hasn’t heard her, Zola Jesus is an easy comparison to make to Soap & Skin but where the aforementioned Russian-American is somewhat conscious of her ‘goth-opera’ niche, there’s a powerful and unstable honesty to Palschg that transcends mere dramatisation. Occasionally faltering, stopping and turning away from the very keys she’s just been clobbering with the might of someone possessed, cracking vocals while belting out a eulogy to the tragic death of her father in the German-language ‘Vater’, all allude to the controlled madness of her oeuvre.
Everything is orchestrated by the young prodigy as she gestures toward her horn player to set the tone of an eerie mise en scene for one song and fumbles over a verse as she pauses to push a key on her laptop for another. But beyond wondering why Palschg doesn’t opt for a sound engineer to press those very buttons for her, it’s these hiccups of over-long pauses and stumbling refrains that generate that feeling of frayed sincerity and unsettling passion that makes Soap & Skin so engaging.
Soap & Skin’s mini-album Narrow is out now on PIAS and the Southbank Centre’s Ether Festival runs throughout October, 2012.