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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Anna von Hausswolff: Dead Magic


1) The Truth, The Glow, The Fall; 2) The Mysterious Vanishing Of Electra; 3) Ugly And Vengeful; 4) The Marble Eye; 5) Källans Ateruppståndelse.

General verdict: Your local "Ghosts, Inc." take on prog- and post-rock, also known as banshee-wagonjumping.

So, last we heard from Anna she was busy indulging in the kinkiest sexual fantasy of all time — making love to the hugest (pipe) organ in the world, which is probably as close as one can get to tentacle rape in real life. The process was certainly exciting but, as I mentioned in the previous review, once the novelty of approach wears off, the general sound waves of the album remain far more important than its specific musical themes. Whether or not this is a problem, the same approach not only remains valid for Dead Magic, but is made even more obvious. With only five tracks, two of them approaching epic prog-rock lengths, the artist very clearly states that a single static theme, very slowly evolving across time, is consistently preferable to arrays of hooks quickly tossing your mind from one emotional field to another. You know — some people live for the moment, others embrace eternity, that sort of thing.

I am not sure if the Acusticum was used again for the sessions (the liner notes just say «pipe organ»), but regardless, the big difference is that Dead Magic actually sounds less like a sound check and more like the actual performance. By not getting dissipated over multiple, equally atmospheric and equally not-too-memorable compositions, Anna succeeds in making these pieces sound like they actually matter. The main themes are fairly trivial: a repetitive waltz motif in ʽThe Truth, The Glow, The Fallʼ, an industrial-doomsday grind in ʽThe Mysterious Vanishing Of Elektraʼ, a New Age-style ambient chord sequence in ʽUgly And Vengefulʼ. But as time goes by and instead of fading away, they get further and further entangled in all sorts of psychedelic overdubs, a feeling of epicness and importance might come over you the same way it often takes a Grateful Dead psychedelic jam fifteen minutes or so to begin terraforming your conscience. And while this might speak of the benefits of technical craft and persistence more than it does of musical genius, it is also not true that any atmospheric 12-minute track by any artist works that way. This is a big risk she takes here, and it seems to pay off.

Anna's weakest spot seems to be confined to the lyrics now: the words she chooses for her sonic panoramas look especially pathetic on paper ("after the fall I'll find you", etc.), but by this time it should be perfectly clear that she only needs those words as an excuse to add her voice to the overall array of instruments. The only thing that matters is that the words do not stray from the chosen path. Like all her other records, this one, too, is also about loss, death, spirits, and wuthering heights, because this is what she wants to be: Stevie Nicks, (early) Kate Bush, and Lisa Gerrard all rolled in one and slightly updated for 2018 — for one thing, because 2018 can allow itself to be more tolerant towards a long, unhurried, even pretentious manner of unveiling one's story, by letting you clearly understand that music like this has no chance whatsoever of major commercial success and earning you a little extra freedom for that.

When I dropped that word «static» again, I was actually setting myself up, because, for instance, ʽThe Truth, The Glow, The Fallʼ is a three-part suite, moving from the Atmospheric Opening (ʽTruthʼ) to the Ghostly Waltz (ʽGlowʼ) to the Apocalyptic Coda (ʽFallʼ). (I think it's about a fair maiden who mourns for her loved one in the first part, follows his ghost in the second part, and transcends the chains of being in the coda; if you have a more logical interpretation, you are a better overthinker than I am). That build-up and tear-down, however, is so slow that there are no mental separators between the three parts — no big surprises, no epiphanies or revelations, more like a somewhat predictable ritual of solemn self-destruction on the part of the protagonist. No actual terror, either: perhaps some easily impressionable listeners might find the organ / voice combination here intimidating, but I sincerely hope that Anna's intention was never to «terrify» the listener as much as it was to try and simply push him over the threshold of the earthly realm into a different kind of reality. And why should life beyond the grave be terrifying, anyway?

ʽThe Mysterious Vanishing Of Elektraʼ (not sure if the reference is to the Greek tragedy or to the Frank Miller comic books or to both or to neither, but if I spend any more time researching Anna von Hausswolff-related trivia, I might end up having to propose to her or something) — anyway, ʽThe Mysterious Vanishingʼ, chosen as the album's single, is easily the most direct, attention-drawing number here: if the relentless battle-ramming, seismic-probing rhythm does not get through to you, then Anna's banshee-like whooooooos certainly will. It's a bit of a cheap trick, but it is also refreshing to see some sheer brutality in action: too many goth-rock performers believe that «going crazy» on record or on stage is not a dignified action on the part of the undead, and it is nice to realize that at least one undead performer has not yet forgotten about the simple power of histrionics. Not that she ever really abuses that power.

The longest piece on the record is ʽUgly And Vengefulʼ, essentially one huge, drawn-out cres­cendo notably reminiscent of the masterpieces by Godspeed You! Black Emperor — only with organ and vocals at the forefront rather than guitars, keyboards, and strings, which, of course, radically shifts the atmosphere. "I'm restless, I'm older, I'm heavy like a stone", she confesses here, making the entire composition look like some passing-of-age exorcism ceremony, with a lengthy ominous setup period and a polyphonic thunderstorm at the core. Not very original, perhaps, but at least the sixteen-minute length is justified — it's not as if you can really perform a proper exorcism in under three minutes. It does get pretty intense at the end, enough so that the last two tracks are completely given over to calmer moods (the organ instrumental ʽMarble Eyeʼ and the ultra-slow, ultra-New Agey ʽ Källans återuppståndelsʼ = ʽResurrection of the sourceʼ).

So, is there a reason why Dead Magic should be prioritized over dozens of similar goth-themed albums, apart from, you know, placing this particular emphasis on the organ and having a really powerful vocalist? As I compare it with, for instance, the latest Chelsea Wolfe albums, I think that the crucial difference is that, somehow, Anna makes it more about the music than about herself. She is engaging here in an original form of rock theater, rather than trying to make it all sound personal — and in that, she is an honorable disciple of Kate Bush (whom I love) rather than Tori Amos (whom I am cautious about). You can like this form of rock theater or you can be indifferent to it, but it is almost impossible to get offended by it, as it often happens with the mediocre «singer-songwriting» type. Of course, it also precludes the listener from empathy and catharsis, but no catharsis is always preferable to simulated catharsis. Truly, Dead Magic is high quality B-grade entertainment and should be taken as such — but it is also risky, uncommercial, and a few notches more challenging than anything in the same genre.

1 comment:

  1. Wolfe, Amos, Bush, Nicks, Gerrard, GY!BE... I don't know whether to commend you or reprimand you for always leaving Diamanda Galas out of your catalogue of comparisons when speaking of Anna's work. Perhaps Diamanda is one reference that goes without saying when talking about Gothic performers who have the guts to go "crazy" on record & stage.