Natasha Khan was just two songs into Sexwitch's debut headlining show at London's XOYO club on Tuesday night, and she was already getting carried away.
"Fucking hell, I need to calm down," she exhaled after her manic incantations on "Ha Howa Ha Howa" left her — and plenty of the sold-out crowd — breathless. But really, chilling out was the last thing she needed to do: While her "day job" in Bat For Lashes might often involve exuding serene ethereality, Sexwitch is clearly intended to be a much more physical, visceral experience.
And so it proved. Between songs, a giggly Khan occasionally seemed to be struggling to commit to the Sexwitch persona, but during the multi-layered jams themselves, she appeared entirely lost in the music: shaking her hair, raising her hands in supplication, eyes closed in a semi-trance.
And this is certainly music to get lost in. Backed up by shaggy-haired psychedelic indie-rock band Toy, with producer Dan Carey — who's also worked with the likes of Franz Ferdinand, Kylie Minogue and Kate Tempest — handling electronics and additional percussion from the back of the stage, Khan built a hypnotic groove throughout, giving the seven-song set the air of an experimental Seventies art-rock project. And yet, given that most of the songs are covers of terminally obscure folk songs from Morocco, Thailand and Iran, rendered yet more unrecognizable by a psych-rock makeover, the show also proved a surprisingly accessible experience.
After three highly acclaimed albums as Bat For Lashes, Khan conceived Sexwitch with Carey, her collaborator on BFL's 2012 album, The Haunted Man. Discovering a mutual love of psychedelia, they hooked up with Toy for a cover of Iranian folk song "The Bride" in 2013. Since then, they've been shopping around for more suitable tracks to interpret, crate-digging in London record shops and translating the lyrics before recording Sexwitch's self-titled debut album live in a single day in London earlier this year.
Khan has described that recording process as being "like a voodoo exorcism," and certainly, during the XOYO show, she seemed almost possessed. Beginning with the rock–world music fusion of "Ghoroobaa Ghashangan," sometimes she sang like a wailing banshee, at other times like Siouxsie and the Banshees (indeed, Sexwitch share some common ground with Siouxsie Sioux's own side project, the Creatures). Songs were stretched out far beyond the duration of their recorded versions, Khan dancing with wild abandon on intense renditions of "Helelyos" and "Lam Plearn Kiew Bao." A version of Moby Grape co-founder Skip Spence's solo tune "War in Peace" — definitely the best-known song among the source material — initially contrasted Toy's Black Sabbath–esque riffing with Khan's delicate vocals before building into an acid-rock maelstrom.
"So, are you feeling sexy?" Khan quipped before tempestuous drone-rocker "The Bride," and her request seemed to loosen the crowd up. As the set closed with the propulsive groove of "Kassidat El Hakka" — "It has to be our last song because we don't have any more," Khan laughed, although she did promise to "make it go on for a while" — the previously mesmerized audience finally began to match some of Khan's more out-there dance moves beneath the strobe lights.
Sexwitch's album is out now, yet with the next Bat For Lashes record due in the spring of 2016, this project is likely to be only a temporary distraction from Khan's main gig. But last night's show proved that as long as Sexwitch sticks around, plenty of fans will be willing to submit to its spell.
"Ha Howa Ha Howa"
"Lam Plearn Kiew Bao"
"War in Peace"
"Kassidat El Hakka"