The dependably excellent Norwegian label Rune Grammofon is perfectly entitled to a self-indulgent showcase night, given its commitment both to quality and a spirit of adventure. The label demands that its admirers keep an open mind. It has succeeded in presenting a consistent and strong brand (aided greatly by Kim Horthoy’s brilliant artwork) whilst also promoting challenging, intelligent music free from genre restrictions, two things often perceived to be mutually exclusive.
This show paired together two of the label’s biggest Norwegian successes from last year, the sensual drone folk psychedelia of Phaedra and the looser, more improvisatory songwriting of Jenny Hval (previously known as Rockettothesky). Hval’s Viscera providded one of 2011’s weirdest, most provocative statements, fearless and fully prepared to take massive lyrical and musical risks. Phaedra’s The Sea was also a substantial discovery, characterised by superbly sustained atmospheres and sophisticated, powerful melodies.
Phaedra, undoubtedly the more conventional of the two acts, perhaps seem a little tentative in live performance. As lovely and intriguing as the songs are, everything feels a little organised and prepared, where the interaction and immediacy of the stage environment could so easily have added more tensions and contrasts to their music. Essentially a meticulously crafted solo project for Ingvild Langgard, this ensemble incarnation somehow feels every bit as rigorously controlled.
The songs taken from The Sea are beautiful and immersive, but could benefit from more dynamic and textural variation. The first part of the set feels a little self-consciously woozy and hypnotic as a result. Nevertheless, Langgard’s voice is powerful, fluid and expressive and the subtle structures of her songs make for strong support for her voice; ”Black Dog” and “The Darkest Hour” are especially compelling. The gently rolling movement, often generated by the acoustic guitar, is indeed suggestive of the sea. The early signs here are that the next Phaedra album will be more aggressive and percussive – stormier and less serene. The sudden entrance of loud toms on two new songs (“Half Human” and “Too Much Sugar”) wakes the audience from their blissful trance.
The revelation of this show surely has to be Jenny Hval’s extraordinary voice. Versatile and multi-faceted, it veers from being cold and detached to sounding wildly intense, via some moments of touching vulnerability. It is a superb instrument that, when situated in Hval’s more radical settings, becomes something really quite captivating. Much of the set focuses on the loose, incantatory music from Viscera, with its brave and candid lyrics celebrating the body (the extraordinary “Engines in the City”, with its intimately located whirring electric toothbrush, is played third here).
The ensemble is interesting – two guitars and a drummer who doubles on synths and samples. For a while, they manage to capture something of the album’s drifting, floating sensations. Still, though, it feels as if Hval’s approach to songwriting demands something even freer and more improvisatory – some more elastic playing and more unusual textures; something still more amorphous.
This sensation is brought into sharper relief when the haunting, beautiful “Milk Of Marrow” unexpectedly morphs into a surprisingly faithful cover of LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean”. No doubt well-intentioned, this gesture doesn’t quite work within the context of Hval’s own music, which is far less rhythmically anchored. The contrast between space and sound is crucial in Hval’s work, whereas the LCD song is all about the relentless, minimal groove.
The set concludes with “I Got No Strings”, a shorter piece that lurches oddly between passages of conventional rock and free clatter. Throughout, Hval is an endearing, captivating stage presence, undercutting the confrontational nature of some of her music with her disarming humility.
As a whole, the show is something of a mixed bag, mixing the extraordinary with the routine and familiar. There are enough moments of brilliance, though, demonstrating Phaedra’s gift for sophisticated melodies, Hval’s unique artistry, and Rune Grammofon’s sincere, passionate and open-minded approach to the music business.
Photos by Scott McMillan