Search This Blog

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Anna von Hausswolff: Ceremony


1) Epitaph Of Theodor; 2) Deathbed; 3) Mountains Crave; 4) Goodbye; 5) Red Sun; 6) Epitaph Of Daniel; 7) No Body; 8) Liturgy Of Light; 9) Harmonica; 10) Ocean; 11) Sova; 12) Funeral For My Future Children; 13) Sun Rise.

Many, if not most, of the reviews of Ceremony use words like «dark», «Gothic», and «ice queen» — which is quite understandable for a record made by a Swedish femme fatale, with song titles such as ʽFuneral For My Future Childrenʼ and a grim, almost hellish photo of one part of a church organ on the front sleeve, the church organ being her primary instrument of choice for most of the songs. Now I do not know if this album is really «great» or just another minor varia­tion on the soul-seeking singer-songwriter saga, but I do know the most interesting thing about it — formally, it deserves all these epithets, and yet, at the same time, it feels totally light, lively, and, in some ways, even cheerfully optimistic to me.

It is no more «dark», in fact, than the average organ fugue or vocal cantata from J. S. Bach: just because the airwaves happen to be choked up by somber overtones from metal pipes, and the lyrics deal with issues of suffering and repentance, this does not imply glorification of the Dark on any rational level. And just because on her second album Anna von Hausswolff has expanded beyond the fiefdom of the personal into the realm of the universal does not imply that she inevitably has to sing and play about the upcoming end of the world. On the contrary, darkness is seen by her as something fairly casual, almost like an acceptable prerequisite of the light — and, as you may notice, for all the morbid imagery in the song titles ("epitaph", "deathbed", "funeral") there are a few important references to "light" and "sunrise" as well.

That this is a musical record first and foremost, and a theatrical one-woman show only in the second place, is immediately made clear by the first two tracks — ʽEpitaph Of Theodorʼ is com­pletely instrumental, and the epic ʽDeathbedʼ is only interrupted by a brief vocal interlude in the middle, so that for the first ten minutes you do not have any singing at all. According to Anna herself, she was more influenced by the drone metal scene (e. g. Earth) than her female peers in the singer-songwriting department, and it shows: ʽEpitaph Of Theodorʼ is slow, draggy, minima­listic, cherishing slowly congealing atmosphere over dynamic musical development — but if you are scared / bored shitless of drone metal for its colorless heavy guitar palette, have no fear: the church organ is a marvelous replacement, and, what's more, somehow she manages to find her own way for tuning and processing it, so the old instrument takes on a new life, reimagining itself as a synthesizer (note: sometimes she actually plays real synthesizers, and it is not always easy to distinguish one from another). Eventually, some guitars drop in, but they are not metal guitars: one of her session musicians plays a mean pedal steel that adds an element of serene, angelic beauty to the stern solemnity of the first part.

I think I like ʽEpitaph Of Danielʼ even better, though — no idea who the Theodor and the Daniel in question are here, but Daniel gets the luckier deal, with an even prettier pedal steel part: the guitarist may be a big fan of David Gilmour or it may just be a coincidence, but he has a true talent of squeezing emotion out of a limited number of notes. And in both cases, the «epitaphs» are done in excellent taste: stern, but light sorrow overridden with musical hints at The Light Eternal. There is probably not much going on here in terms of active musical innovation, but the sonic palette mixed up by Anna and her associates is fresh, and certainly among the most inspiring ones to come from the 2010s.

The obvious downside is that more or less the same palette is used throughout the entire album, and the entire album goes on for about an hour — not too surprising, considering how long some of the themes have to take in order to unwrap their whole potential. But this I can live with. For one thing, there are a few helpful diversions along the way — for instance, ʽNo Bodyʼ is two and a half minutes of sonically impressive experimentation, an industrial/avantgarde track where Anna is busy farting into the leftmost organ pipe and then catching the exhaust on the rightmost one. Or if she is not, at least it's something from that area; amusing rather than properly terrifying, but an intrigue all the same. And ʽHarmonicaʼ, with its handclap and conga rhythms accompanied by dense synth patterns, is an intrusion onto New Age / World Music turf that does not work as well as the organ-based tracks, but is competent and compatible with the rest.

For another thing, she still has a knack for occasional vocal hooks, although now they are less in the shape of catchy choruses and more in the shape of particularly sharp and beautiful phrasing, like on ʽOceanʼ, whose toppling "I take it ba-a-a-a-a-a-ack, my honor..." lines are head-spinning; or the tense, admonishing "it's written all around" resolution of the verses on ʽLithurgy Of Lightʼ; or the whoah-whoah-ing on ʽFuneral For My Future Childrenʼ, an odd hybrid between her church style and country music, with waltz tempos, a small pinch of yodeling, and a pretty happy into­nation as the lady declares her intention to "bury all my children" — actually, the song is not so much about death inevitable as it is about life eternal, hence all the subtle happiness. She's a strange one, but I admire how she manages to get through all this pretense without becoming truly annoying on the ears or offensive to the mind.

And as for the monotonousness, well, she said it herself that the whole album was to be some­what conceptual and «soundtrackish», with a common thread running through all the songs, and she was pretty right about it, too. I am not sure what kind of movie should have hosted this sound­track — something by Terrence Malick, perhaps? probably would be unwatchable — but since the entire thing has a ghostly atmosphere, let's assume that, in the end, it should be a movie about ghosts. Friendly ones, you know, those who come to you in your dreams and teach you that earthly life is only the beginning of true existence. For what it's worth, by the way, Ceremony gives the impression of being a very Christian album without a single explicit shred of Christi­anity — something that always commands my respect. Even better, I simply like it without putting too much thought in it, meaning a thumbs up from all sides of consciousness. And championing a moderately new kind of sound in 2012 ain't no slouch, either.

No comments:

Post a Comment